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Where does Open Access stop and ‘just doing good science’ begin?

14 October 2008 No Comment

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I had been getting puzzled for a while as to why I was being characterised as an ‘Open Access’ advocate. I mean, I do adovcate Open Access publication and I have opinions on the Green versus Gold debate. I am trying to get more of my publications into Open Access journals. But I’m no expert, and I’ve certainly been around this community for a much shorter time and know a lot less about the detail than many other people. The giants of the Open Access movement have been fighting the good fight for many years. Really I’m just a late comer cheering from the sidelines.

This came to a head recently when I was being interviewed for a piece on Open Access. We kept coming round to the question of what it was that motivated me to be ‘such a strong’ advocate of open access publication. I must have a very strong motivation to have such strong views surely? And I found myself thinking that I didn’t. I wasn’t that motivated about open access per se. It took some thinking and going back over where I had come from to realise that this was because of where I was coming from.

I guess most people come to the Open Science movement firstly through an interest in Open Access. The frustration of not being able to access papers, followed by the realisation that for many other scientists it must be much worse. Often this is followed by the sense that even when you’ve got the papers they don’t have the information you want or need, that it would be better if they were more complete, the data or software tools available, the methodology online. There is a logical progression from ‘better access to the literature helps’ to ‘access to all the information would be so much better’.

I came at the whole thing from a different angle. My Damascus moment came when I realised the potential power of making everything available; the lab book, the data, the tools, the materials, and the ideas. Once you connect the idea of the read-write web to science communication, it is clear that the underlying platform has to be open, accessible, and re-useable to get the benefits. Science is perhaps the ultimate open platform available to build on. From this perspective it is immediately self evident that the current publishing paradigm and subscription access publication in particular is broken. But it is just one part of the puzzle, one of the barriers to communication that need to be attacked, broken down, and re-built. It is difficult, for these reasons, for me to separate out a bit of my motivation that relates just to Open Access.

Indeed in some respects Open Access, at least in the form in which it is funded by author charges can be a hindrance to effective science communication. Many of the people I would like to see more involved in the general scientific community, who would be empowered by more effective communication, cannot afford author charges. Indeed many of my colleagues in what appear to be well funded western institutions can’t afford them either. Sure you can ask for a fee waiver but no-one likes to ask for charity.

But I think papers are important. Some people believe that the scientific paper as it exists today is inevitably doomed. I disagree. I think it has an important place as a static document, a marker of what a particular group thought at a particular time, based on the evidence they had assembled. If we accept that the paper has a place then we need to ask how it is funded, particularly the costs of peer and editorial review, and the costs maintaining that record into the future. If you believe, as I do, that in an ideal world this communication would be immediately available to all then there are relatively few viable business models available. What has been exciting about the past few months, and indeed the past week has been the evidence that these business models are starting to work through and make sense. The purchase of BioMedCentral by Springer may raise concerns for the future but it also demonstrates that a publishing behemoth has faith in the future of OA as a publishing business model.

For me, this means that in many ways the discussion has moved on. Open Access, and Open Access publication in particular, has proved its viability. The challenges now lie in widening the argument to include data, to include materials, to include process. To develop the tools that will allow us to capture all of this in a meaningful way and to make sense of other people’s record. None of which should in any way belittle the achievement of those who have brought the Open Access movement to its current point. Immense amounts of blood, sweat, and tears, from thousands of people have brought what was once a fringe movement to the centre of the debate on science communication. The establishing of viable publishers and repositories for pre-prints, the bringing of funders and governments to the table with mandates, and of placing the option of OA publication at the fore of people’s minds are huge achievements, especially given the relatively short time it has taken. The debate on value for money, on quality of communication, and on business models and the best practical approaches will continue, but the debate about the value of, indeed the need for, Open Access has essentially been won.

And this is at the core of what Open Access means for me. The debate has placed, or perhaps re-placed, right at the centre of the discussion of how we should do science, the importance of the quality of communication. It has re-stated the principle of placing the claims that you make, and the evidence that supports them, in the open for criticism by anyone with the expertise to judge, regardless of where they are based or who is funding them. And it has made crystal clear where the deficiencies in that communication process lie and exposed the creeping tendency of publication over the past few decades to become more an exercise in point scoring than communication. There remains much work to be done across a wide range of areas but the fact that we can now look at taking those challenges on is due in no small part to the work of those who have advocated Open Access from its difficult beginnings to today’s success. Open Access Day is a great achievment in its own right and it should be celebration of the the efforts of all those people who have contributed to making it possible as well as an opportunity to build for the future.

High quality communication, as I and others have said, and will continue to say, is Just Good Science. The success of Open Access has shown how one aspect of that communication process can be radically improved. The message to me is a simple one. Without open communication you simply can’t do the best science. Open Access to the published literature is simply one necessary condition of doing the best possible science.

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