Access for all

Should research forever be kept behind lock and key in paywalled journals, or will the open access movement disrupt the classic model of scientific publishing?

Illustration by Ben Coy

Illustration by Ben Coy


Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions covers science prior to 1962, but what about later transformations in science? In this column, we look at what might be considered modern scientific revolutions (here's our 101 on what makes a revolution). This month, Matthew Soleiman lifts the lid on the open access movement.

In 2014, Erin McKiernan made a pledge. As a neuroscientist early in her career, she would actively avoid doing what most scientists strive to achieve. She would not publish any of her findings in Cell, Nature, or Science: prestigious yet frequently paywalled journals. Instead, she would send her work exclusively to journals known for being 'open access' – which are freely available to all with a decent internet connection.

The decision was tied to her experiences in Puerto Rico, and later in Mexico. “I ended up working at relatively small institutions that had very poor access to the scientific literature,” she said in an podcast from the Public Library of Science, or PLOS, an open access publisher. “And you’re hitting those paywalls everyday, and your students are hitting those paywalls everyday. And so you start to feel that frustration. And you start to see how it slows down your own work and slows down your students’ learning.”

“For me, that was really this huge wake up call that we were doing things wrong,” she added.

McKiernan’s pledge is part of an ongoing movement to upend the reigning model in scientific publishing. For the majority of journals, a subscription is required to read beyond the brief summary of a research paper. And, it’s not cheap. Year-long access to Nature can cost over $200. And that's just one journal. Include more than one subscription, and the costs skyrocket.

University libraries, too, must pay up, with the most affordable option typically being a bundle of subscriptions. The prices here are generally based on private negotiations between the library and the publisher. Not even the richest, most successful universities can afford to have access to all journals.

Tearing down these paywalls, some researchers say, is not only possible, but ethical. Taxpayers can view the work they helped fund. Research becomes more transparent, and, hence, more reproducible. Discoveries quicken, as do medical advances, ultimately saving lives in the process.

As McKiernan wrote in 2012, “if this decision costs me my career in neuroscience, then it is not a field I want to be in.”

Even from conception, the scientific journal wasn’t free. In March of 1665, Henry Oldenburg, the Secretary of the Royal Society of London, began publishing 'Philosophical Transactions Giving Some Account of the Present Understanding, Studies and Labours of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World', or more simply, Philosophical Transactions. Despite Oldenburg’s job title, the journal was not an official publication of the Royal Society. Rather, it was his pet project, intended for the community of natural philosophers.

The title page of the first volume of Philosophical Transactions.   Henry Oldenburg/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY 4.0)

The title page of the first volume of Philosophical Transactions. Henry Oldenburg/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

For decades before, these early scientists had relied on two ways of communicating at a distance. They authored books, yes, but they also mailed letters, and lots of them, thanks in large part to the maturation of the postal services. This “provided an excellent means for the exchange of views, the conducting of controversies, the corroboration of individual observations and the official recognition of one’s own findings,” writes Maurizio Gotti, a linguist and historian of English at the University of Bergamo. By receiving, copying and ultimately circulating these letters, Oldenburg was already maintaining a network spanning hundreds of individuals scattered across northern Europe.

Still, doing so was far from lucrative. So, as a side gig, Oldenburg founded Philosophical Transactions, selling each volume for one shilling. The discoveries the journal would go on to report ranged widely. Within its first volume, readers could learn about “A Spot in one of the Belts of Jupiter,” “An Experimental History of Cold,” and “An Account of a very odd Monstrous Calf.”

Although it yielded a slim profit, Philosophical Transactions was a hit. Natural philosophers no longer had to wait until they had enough data for a full-length book. Nor was the reach of their ideas and observations limited by that of a letter secretary, or by who could attend a meeting.

As a result, new journals were thrust into existence, though it took a while for those held in high regard today to appear. Nature emerged almost two centuries later in 1869. Eleven years after that, there was Science. As their names sought to make obvious, these journals would follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, dedicating themselves to the sciences as a whole. Yet some journals chose to be much more specialised, a natural consequence of science evolving into narrower and narrower niches.

Over the 19th and 20th centuries, such publications became integral to the scientific process; researchers could readily compare their questions, experiments, and results to those from dozens of other labs. But they also were increasingly codified as the essential ingredients of a successful academic career. To publish, and to publish in certain journals, could mean a future-proofed job, promotions, funding, and, perhaps most importantly, credit.

The proliferation of journals eventually led to the so-called 'serials crisis'. During the 1980s, financially-strained libraries found that they could no longer afford the unchecked prices of subscriptions. Indeed, between 1986 and 2005, the cost of journals for American libraries quadrupled, outpacing the rate of inflation several times.

Subscriptions were cancelled. Access became restricted. To stretch each dollar, libraries embraced the “Big Deal,” a package of subscriptions offered at a discounted price.

Librarians marching in Brisbane, Australia.   ALIA Qld/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Librarians marching in Brisbane, Australia. ALIA Qld/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“The problem arises because research libraries are charged with obtaining for scholars at their institution access to the entire scholarly output of their colleagues,” wrote the Berkeley geneticist Michael Eisen in 2012.

“Not just the most important stuff. Not just the most interesting stuff. Not just the most affordable stuff. ALL OF IT. And publishers know this. So they raise prices on their existing journals. And they launch new titles. And then they raise their prices.”

This crisis wasn’t merely a single event. It became a chronic condition, extending into the 21st century. In 1991, however, the physicist Paul Ginsbarg designed what would turn into one possible solution. Ginsbarg had previously considered the idea of a centralised database for the latest articles in physics and mathematics. The appetite was surely there, as Ginsbarg’s colleagues in the field of string theory were already openly sharing articles via email.

So, upon after leaving his position at Harvard and arriving at Los Alamos National Laboratory, he set up a email-based system for researchers to request and read papers at any stage of the peer-review process, free of charge. First dubbed, the repository would later have its named changed to arXiv (pronounced archive).

“This was back in 1991, long before ‘xxx’ had acquired its current ‘adult’ implications on the Internet,” Ginsbarg said an interview in 2002.  

“I was originally anticipating about 100 submissions per year from the roughly 200 people in the one little subfield it originally covered, but there were multiple submissions per day from day 1, and by the end of the year a few thousand people were involved.”

Soon after, another workaround to the serials crisis was introduced to the online world — open access journals. Each year, their number, and the number of articles they published, grew exponentially. These journals were initially the creation of academics like Eisen, who helped found PLOS. But over time, even big-name publishers acquiesced. Springer, for example, allowed authors to pay a fee to make their work open.

ArXiv has   served as a repository for physics and mathematics papers before they are published since the 1990s, circumnavigating the publishing system.   Lakrits/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

ArXiv has served as a repository for physics and mathematics papers before they are published since the 1990s, circumnavigating the publishing system. Lakrits/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yet, the phrase 'open access' would not be publicly coined until December of 2001, at a meeting in Budapest. There, leaders of the movement — including Eisen, the cognitive scientist Steven Harnad, and the philosopher Peter Suber — formally defined what open access meant, charted how far it could go, and called upon individuals and institutions to further their cause.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative rooted itself in the importance of the public good, stressing that, together, open access and the internet could expand it. “Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge,” the initiative stated.

Today, the publishing landscape is more open than ever. A recent study, published in PeerJ, found that 45% of papers were marked as open access in 2015. That percentage is even higher for specific sciences like biomedicine (>50%), as well as for specific fields, like astronomy and astrophysics (87%). Historically paywalled journals are increasingly instituting open access premiums, and their publishers are developing open access titles.

'Preprint' repositories like arXiv have also proliferated. There’s bioRxiv for biology, PsyArXiv for psychology, and SocArXiv for the social sciences, to name a few. Cell Press even has something similar where you can download papers undergoing peer review at its journals. What’s more, the two mediums for open access publishing are slowing joining forces. Earlier this year, PLOS announced that all papers submitted to the journal would be posted on bioRxiv, so long as the authors don’t opt out.

All of this seems to scream of a paradigm shift of Kuhnian proportions – one that’s currently in motion, or at the very least on its way. “A new paradigm of biomedical publishing is proposed, in which the biomedical literature is made freely available on the Internet,” wrote one author almost 20 years ago. “This is what drives the most passionate promoters of [open access] publishing: that it’s a paradigm shift in how we do science and is about the betterment of the discipline as a whole, not just individual researchers’ careers,” wrote another in 2014.

As I found, however, confirming as much proved to be difficult. Skim the checklist my colleague Diana Crow laid out in our first column, and open access initially fares well. “Does it challenge or replace a paradigm in crisis?” Sure. “Has it attracted and rallied supporters within scientific community?” Definitely. The last two criteria are trickier to apply. “Has it held up after new experimental data has come in? And has it transformed a scientific subdiscipline?” Neither seem to fit.

The open access movement may not be a Kuhnian paradigm, nor may any form of scientific publishing, because it's not an area of scientific inquiry itself. But it is a shift in the way we do science: it embodies a collection of values about who should be able to look behind the metaphorical curtain, and why.

Open access democratises access to science, and that may be even more important. 

Edited by Diana Crow and Tessa Evans