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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 their research freely available, labelling the "scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive" in a memo.

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 - acquired 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 public attention.

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.

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