Should all scientific research be made open access?

Open access refers to peer-reviewed scholarly research that is available, unrestricted, to anyone with an internet connection.  

Open access is the practice of providing unrestricted access to published research articles through the internet or open-access journals. Primarily, open access is applied to journal articles, but it is increasingly being applied to theses, book chapters and even data, like the DNA sequence data produced during the Human Genome Project. There are two main types of open access:

  • Green: authors publish their research in any journal, then self-archive a version to make openly accessible in their institution’s library or on an open-access website.
  • Gold: journals provide open access only for those articles for which the author has paid an open-access publishing fee.

The Human Genome Project is widely regarded as a pioneering model for open-access science. Agreements made during the Human Genome Project to encourage the free distribution of research data acted as a groundbreaking step for scientific research.

Before the Human Genome Project, scientists mainly shared their research findings in published scientific journals. However, after the Human Genome Project, scientists were willingly sharing their findings with each other, as well as with the public, long before publication.

Open access has been growing since the development of the internet. Now more than 50 per cent of new research is freely available online, with 25 per cent being made available straight away and the rest being made available within 12 months of publication. In addition to this, increasing numbers of historical papers are being moved into the open-access domain.

Now, there is a government campaign to make all publicly funded research data open access by the end of 2014. Although considerable progress is being made towards achieving this, not everyone agrees with the principles of open-access science. Here are the arguments for and against open access – what do you think?

Are the costs of open access reasonable?

  • Yes
  • Authors do sometimes have to pay to have their papers published in open-access journals, but even large open-access publishers (for example, BioMed Central and Public Library of Science: PLoS) only charge a very small fee.
  • Small open-access publishers do not charge fees because they are often subsidised by universities or societies.
  • Overall, more than half of open-access journals do not charge a fee to authors when publishing their papers. Of those that do charge, the average fee is £563, a small proportion of most research grants.
  • With more open access, the savings to be made by universities and other institutions requiring journal subscriptions is estimated to be around £200m.
  • No
  • Although the average fee for publishing in an open-access journal is £563, this may not be affordable for all research groups. Some authors may not have large research grants that will cover this cost. 
  • Publishers are key to ensuring scientific information is made available to the public. Full open access would be detrimental for publishers as they are funded primarily through selling journal subscriptions. A pay-for-access model ensures that publishers can cover their costs and are given credit for their work.

Does open access have a positive effect on the scientists?

  • Yes
  • Scientists have a moral duty to share new knowledge with other scientists and the public as this informs and accelerates scientific progress.
  • The Wellcome Trust states that: "It is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author's work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions." 
  • It is important to ensure researchers work is accessible and recognised. Open-access journals enable researchers to increase the visibility of their work and receive more widespread recognition for it.
  • No
  • A switch to open-access publishing might lead scientists to choose to publish in cheaper journals in an attempt to drive down fees. This may then result in a compromise on editorial quality.
  • Open-access journals have been criticised for not establishing a rigorous peer-review process when assessing the quality of papers and therefore accepting ‘substandard’ articles just to make money. This could lead to a fall in the overall standard of research being published in open-access journals.
  • Scientists are more likely to do the tough experiments for a high-profile journal compared to open-access journals. An increase in open access could therefore hinder progress.

Does open access have a positive effect on scientific research?

  • Yes
  • Open access enables the commercialisation of the results of scientific research by increasing the visibility of the work. This encourages an exchange of ideas and experience within the scientific community, both academic and commercial.
  • Progress in research benefits from the sharing of results and collaboration. Research known only to a small closed circle soon becomes sterile.
  • No
  • Open access may jeopardise the freedom and creativity of science as, under the open-access model, the job of deciding where and what to publish will be taken from the scientists and handed to university administrators.
  • Academics may have to spend additional time adapting their work to meet the strict criteria of open-access journals.
  • There are easier, more cost-effective ways that individual academics can make their research more accessible. In the future communication may be more effective through social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Does the taxpayer have a right to know where their money is going?

  • Yes
  • The results of scientific research should be easily accessible to the public who have funded it through their taxes and charitable donations.
  • Greater transparency means a better deal for taxpayers. The UK Government spends almost £5 billion on science and research. Open-access journals ensure that the taxpayer is able to access the results of this investment and can hold the Government (and scientists) to account.
  • No
  • Taxpayers do not pay their taxes so that they can access and read research results. All they care about is that the Government's investment in research leads to benefits in everyday life such as improved medical treatments. 

Is the peer-review process as thorough in open-access journals?

  • Yes
  • Open-access journals have editorial boards of similar composition to those of subscription journals.
  • No
  • Peer review, editing, indexing of articles requires resources not supplied under the open-access model.
  • Open access could lead to the traditional peer-review process being abandoned. Scientists may start to upload their results directly onto the Web without being subjected to any quality control or review process.
  • If big institutions cancel their subscriptions to pay-to-view journals, publishers may be forced to exit the market, leaving no one to manage the peer-review process. 

Do universities need open access?

  • Yes
  • Without open access, students at universities with fewer resources (for example, in developing countries) may find access to research for their studies restricted.
  • Free open access means universities can afford to house more academic papers than if they had to pay for them. A large university library with lots of important scientific publications available to its students helps to improve the reach of scientific publications and speed up the spread of knowledge.

This page was last updated on 2014-11-17