Open Access: Who, what, and why?

The Max Planck Group (MPG) are focusing on making as much MPG work as possible Open Access, and now each Max Planck Institute has Open Access ambassadors to promote and enable Open Access policies within each MPI. Amie Fairs, Gwilym Lockwood and myself are the ambassadors for our MPI, and as a general introduction to why we are so passionate about this, we wrote the following post. This is the original English version, the translated Dutch one can be found here.

Science costs a lot of money, and most academic research comes from people’s taxes – in fact, 80% of research is publicly funded. It only seems fair that the public, who invest all this money in research, should be able to read the results. However, academic journals charge high prices for people to be able to read academic articles. This is generally around €30 per article, and sometimes that’s only to be able to access it for 24 hours. This is often ridiculous – Nature charges €15 just to access the review of Greg Hickok’s book “The Myth of Mirror Neurons”, while, at the time of writing this blog, you can buy the book new on for the same price. It is unfair to have publicly-funded research hidden behind paywalls where the public cannot access it.

Another reason why it is critical that the public has access to up-to-date research is because there’s a lot of pseudoscience out there that is completely free to access, meaning that people looking for information are more likely to find and read this than actual, peer-reviewed science. At the MPI for Psycholinguistics, much of our work is theoretical and not necessarily of interest to people… but other MPIs research diseases and things that people want to find out about properly. For example, a parent who has a child with autism might want to read about the condition and find out as much as possible about the causes and treatments. There are two choices for accessing that information: the parent could pay something like €30 for 24 hours access to one article resulting from publicly funded research, or the parent can browse the internet and find all the bullshit articles about how vaccines cause autism, which they don’t. It is immoral to withhold peer-reviewed research from the public when misinformation is more easily accessible.

For scientists, the journal system is an even bigger problem. We do the research. We write the research and send it to a journal editor to be reviewed. The journal editor is normally another scientist who does their editor role for free. The editor sends the research to other scientists to review, again for free. Then, when the paper has been reviewed and accepted, we have to pay a publication cost (generally between €1000 – €2000) to the journals to publish the paper which has been checked and edited and reviewed by other scientists for free… and the journals then sell our work back to our libraries! Of course, publishing houses do need to spend some money to publish papers, not everyone works for free. However, the major publishing houses have greater profit margins than Apple and Disney, some even more than Google! So it’s fair to say that they can afford to charge a lot less.

 At the MPG, we spend €10,000,000 a year on journal subscriptions, but many universities cannot afford this, which is hugely unfair because it means that scientists around the world cannot get access to information which they need for their own research. Even Harvard, one of the world’s richest universities, can’t afford to keep paying for all their journal subscriptions. This has a knock on effect on things like tuition fees, which are increasing to the point where many people cannot afford to go to university, especially in the USA and the UK. Not to mention if universities don’t need to pay subscription costs, imagine what they could do with an extra €10,000,000 a year. This is roughly half of what the Ice-Bucket Challenge collected for ALS research.

Open Access will hopefully change this. The idea of Open Access is to make scientific research open and accessible for everybody, regardless of finances. The main advantage for the public is that they can read peer-reviewed scientific research for free, and there are already a few online journals such as Frontiers and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) where all articles are Open Access. Several MPI researchers publish their work here! However, for scientists, Open Access goes further than that. Open Access scientists make their data and computer code available for other scientists, which allows us to check each other’s work and replicate (or not) each other’s experiments. Luckily, the Netherlands is quite advanced in making science Open Access. The Dutch government and universities are united in negotiations against Elsevier, a large publishing company which owns thousands of journals. They are demanding that all work by researchers at Dutch institutions be made available to people in the Netherlands free of charge by 2024. This has already been successful with another publishing company, Springer.

Hopefully, in less than ten years’ time, you will be able to read all peer-reviewed scientific research, and Dutch universities will be saving millions of euros per year in journal fees. Think of all the extra research that could be done with that money!

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