Open access publishing and how science gets into the media
- 27 Apr 2012, 13:00
- Robin Webster
Creative Commons: Riccardo Cambiassi
Even at some of Britain's largest research universities,
academics can struggle to access the scientific research they need
because of the costs imposed by scientific journals, according to
speakers at the European
Geosciences Union (EGU)'s biggest conference of the year.
It's a live topic. Giant academic publisher Elsevier
is currently the subject of a rebellion, with more than
10,000 academics so far signing a pledge to boycott it as a result
of high fees to access academic literature. Astrophysicist
Peter Coles last week called Elsevier one of the "worst
offenders", but blames the entire "academic journal racket" for
high access prices. And just a few days ago, Harvard University
announced it's started encouraging its faculty members to make
freely available, labelling the "scholarly communication
fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive" in a
On Wednesday, a packed session at the annual general meeting of
the EGU discussed "
Open science and the future of publishing" (video recording
here). A new generation of open access academic publishers make
papers freely available afgter publication - and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers
Association, Copernicus.organd PloS One were all on
the panel, as well as major publishers including Oxford University
Press and Elsevier.
Elsevier's representative, Angelika Lex, was pretty quiet, but
Erik Merkel-Sobotta of Springer,
another major academic publisher, was more eloquent. He described
Springer as initially "neutral" on open access publishing. Despite
this, in 2008, Springer - which is the world's second largest
publisher of commercial science, technology and medicine journals -
BioMed Central, becoming at a stroke the
largest open access publisher in the world. Springer allows
authors to decide the publishing model for their work after it's
been through the peer review process.
Merkel-Sobotta said some powerful scientific institutions view
open access as a threat as well as an opportunity. Scientific
societies are apparently particularly reluctant to embrace free
access to journals and, according to the panel, they're also some
of the main drivers behind the rising prices for journal
subscriptions (there's an interesting editorial on this
here that you won't have to pay for).
It's difficult to know how much scientific societies are
resisting the shift to open access, and there's evidence that some
are trying to reach a wider audience - the Royal Society's
publishing arm offers open
access membership, for example.
Whatever the fears of some organisations, researchers who have
to pay fees of up to £30 to access a single journal article - or go
through the lengthy process of an interlibrary loan - are clearly
frustrated. In the discussion, a commenter from the floor remarked
that it's not always possible to gain access to articles at
Imperial College, one of the UK's richest universities.
Open access may also increase media reporting of new research.
From our observation, papers published for free
on the internet are more likely to be picked up - sometimes
months after they appeared in the original academic journal.
There's no guarantee of course that the coverage is accurate - but
this would be a strange argument for keeping scientific research
behind a paywall.
Merkel-Sobotta described the current process of identifying
which papers are highlighted in the media as an 'imperfect system'.
According to his account, researchers or press offices alert
journal publishers to the fact that a paper may attract public
interest, and the publisher will then give it media 'treatment' -
including a press release. Interestingly, when a paper is given
treatment, Springer will make that paper available on request to
anyone who is interested (something our more technically minded
readers may want to bear in mind). He also said Springer's aware
that some 'controversial' researchers maintain their own
relationship with the media.
Despite the struggle over access that appears to be going on
within various institutions, the overwhelming feeling from the
session was that the shift towards more open publishing is an
inevitable process that the research community welcomes.
What this means for media, or the accuracy of media coverage,
remains to be seen. Another session on Thursday called "
Communicate your science" attracted at least 70 participants.
And a few of them had interesting stories to tell of being suddenly
pitched into the middle of a media storm after their work attracted
Questions of data privacy, use of social media and support from
press offices were among the issues on the table. Despite the
obvious challenges - and the daunting prospect of eliciting a tide
of hostile coverage -
there was still a feeling of optimism about the move toward more
openness and engagement, particularly from a younger generation of
scientists accustomed to using social media.