On Open Access: Benefits and Challenges

Written by Daniel Xin Zhang and Minh TN Le

The 2018 International Open Access Week is themed at “designing equitable foundations for open knowledge” with global celebrations. We would like to take this opportunity to give our thoughts on some of the benefits open access brings as well as the challenges we might encounter in open access publishing.

The past two decades has witnessed the exponential growth of open access publications thanks to the information revolution which dramatically accelerates the distribution and circulation of knowledge at our fingertips. Such success in open access publishing owns not just to the technological advancements but also to the substantial benefits it carries.

Open access is good for both readers and authors. Instead of being grounded on subscribed contents only, readers are granted the unrestricted access to the whole picture at no additional cost. It is especially important to readers from less developed nations where institutions may find it unaffordable to purchase a full collection of the latest literature. If scholarly papers are legally and conveniently available in a user-friendly fashion to anyone in need, the demand for pirated academic articles shall drop significantly. Authors can gain a lot from open access too. It leads to a way greater exposure chance of the published article which in return might give the authors more citations and maximize the research impact. After all, we publish something in the hope that it can help, evolve, and be made full use of or even translated rather than for the sake of just publishing it.

Open access nurtures both the society and the scientific community. It broadens the reach of the scientific articles from institutional users to every individual in the society. A majority of the research funding comes from public or government grants which are supported by taxpayers. Therefore, they should be rightfully entitled to access the research outcomes but are double charged. Public access furnishes everyone interested with a gigantic library of knowledge without financial burden or entry restriction. Novel concepts in open access revitalize the publishing industry. There are now journals providing authors with the option to make the peer review process public. On the one hand, this action adds to transparency in science; on the other, the audience can see and learn how improvements are made to the research in the process of peer reviewing. Interactive functions are being introduced to online open access contents such as data and protocols sharing, collaborating platforms, Q&A sections, and social networking, which promotes discussion and the exchange of ideas.

Despite the fascinating perks mentioned above, there exist certain issues we simply cannot avoid facing in open access publishing. Never are they going to be easily addressed. Yet, we would still like to raise some here to spark conversations for bettering open access.

Article processing charge is without doubt one of the most debated topics in open access publishing. In many open access models, the journals charge either the authors or the institutions for publication fees to cover the cost in running and generate profits even though there are waiver/subsidy schemes and other business models available. The peer review process and editorial decisions should be made independent of article processing charges. This is to maintain academic and ethical integrity and high qualities and to avoid exploitation. Measures are to taken to ensure that authors with a limited budget for publication fees, such as junior or amateur scientists and scientists from less developed countries, will not face financial hurdles related to article processing charges which will stop them from publishing their qualified, accepted manuscripts in the journals.

Besides, the coverage of open access can be further expanded. Currently, a vast number of open access actions and activities, such as preferential policies and mandates, established open-access repositories, institutional/national subsidy schemes for publication fees, and various types of initiatives, remain heavily seated in countries that are relatively developed academically and economically while countries and institutions in less favourable positions are found involuntarily absent in this transition. Related campaigns and resources should extend to developing nations for more people from diverse geographical social and economic backgrounds to get engaged.

The spirit of open access lies in openness, transparency, equality and inclusiveness with uncompromised standards. Only when no one is left out in the era of open access can it benefit us the most.

Open access nurtures education by providing unlimited learning possibilities.

This post was first published on the Nature Research Bioengineering Community

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