Saturday, October 27, 2012

Science and the transition to open access to literature

If there is anything that goes beyond borders, politics, conflicts and other things that impede globalisation of humanity, it is science. The pursuit of knowledge by scientists is a universal human endeavour, and while differences in perception do exist, science has enough common ground to look past such conflicts. Because of the global organisation of science, it is of paramount importance that scientists have access to data from publications of their peers. Sadly, this process is impeded by scientific journals that charge unreasonably high prices for access and slow down the spread of knowledge. While this blog has already mentioned this issue a couple of times, slowly but steadily science is becoming aware of the problem of access to scientific knowledge. A video from PhD Comics eloquently explains how we can move to open access publishing.

The video
Moving forward
Your editor believes that the video provides an excellent graphical explanation of an issue that is currently one of science's greatest problems. Journals are a menace and need to be replaced by a system that needs to be instituted by governments around the world. A single publishing system could have various benefits, further detailed blow.

It can take more than a year before your scientific article gets published. It may get rejected by the journal in which you want to publish it or the editors may demand changes to your article, reflecting their own preferences. Additionally, most journals have a peer-review system, which means a fellow scientist looks at the to-be-published work. Reviewers always have comments which need to be addressed, further slowing down the process. While expert reviews are a good thing, they are not always relevant. A peer reviewer has his own scientific perceptions which means the review process differs for each reviewer and that means it is not quite a universal check for quality, while it does cost a lot of extra time.

Peer reviewing touches upon another subject: transparency  What happens between submission, reviewing and publishing is shady for those not involved with the research, and it would be a lot better if this process would be open and accessible. An open access system could be set up with the ability to add expert comments to articles, indicating the strengths and weaknesses of the presented research, or to provide additional data, strengthening the original research.

Finding information
By having all research data at our disposal, information systems could be created that allow us to tie together research and be much more efficient in finding information. No longer would the data be dispersed between different journals that all have their own ways of publishing and granting access to articles. This helps scientists to spread their research to their peers, as well as letting them find new information more effectively, speeding up the scientific process.

Most research institutions pay hefty fees to journals for the subscriptions that scientists need to gather data. While the costs are bearable for large institutes in wealthy countries, a lot of emerging countries have trouble paying and are therefore shut off from scientific knowledge. Access to an individual article can be as much as 30 to 50 dollars, and all of it is filling the pockets of the journals. Not only is this an insanely high price for a piece of specialist content, it is also not even written by the journals themselves, as was already explained in the video.

In the age of the internet and new technology that enables us to find and organize information faster and more effectively than before, scientific journals no longer should have a place in the spread of scientific knowledge. New publishing systems could be set up relatively cheap and could ensure that relevant information can easily be found. The problem is that scientific journals have a lot of power: scientists want to publish in highly esteemed journals because this is better for their career. This means that not only the technology needs to change, the mindsets of scientists, editors and everyone else involved with the spread of scientific knowledge needs to change as well.

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