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Absolutely Maybe

Evidence and uncertainties about medicine and life

Open access 2013: A year of gaining momentum

Was this the year open access for science reached critical mass? One hypothesis suggests that a transformative group needs to reach one-third to be prominent and persisting.

Cartoon of old school closed science libraryWas this the year open access for science reached critical mass?

One hypothesis suggests that a transformative group needs to reach one-third to be prominent and persisting.

Rogers' theory on the diffusion of innovations that will eventually reach saturation level says the first 2.5% are innovators. By the time you get to 16% the phase of early adopters could be ending.

[caption id="attachment_3339" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Rogers' levels of innovation diffusion (from Wikipedia)"]Innovation diffusion graphe[/caption]

If that's the trajectory that accessible scientific publications is on, one estimate suggests it went past early adopter level in 2011, when about 17% of scholarly articles were available within 12 months (12% immediately). There had been just under 8% published in open access journals in 2009.

Open access isn't evenly spread among all disciplines though. One estimate of the growth of accessible publications indexed in the massive biomedical literature PubMed was that it grew from 27% of articles published in 2006 to 50% in 2010.

Pushing for and enabling open access began decades ago. It gained serious energy with the emergence of the open source movement and the internet. By the early 1990s publishing in physics was being re-imagined. PubMed arrived later that decade and its public access repository PubMed Central (PMC) went live in 2000. There are now thousands of open access academic repositories.

Open science is not just about access to publications, but encompasses open data, open educational resources and changes throughout the process of sharing, discussing and replicating scholarly findings. But the most basic access to those findings is the cornerstone.

Public debate, policy and infrastructure about access to publications gained momentum in 2013. By the end of the year, open access had been on the stage from the UN to the White House and The Colbert Report. Let's do a quick month-by-month tour.

January: The year began with an awful jolt; Aaron Swartz's suicide. Swartz had argued in his 2008 "Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto" that open access for science was "a moral imperative." Read more about Swartz and the commitment to open access that led him to such despair in a recent post from Lawrence Lessig.

Caveat emptor applies when looking at open access publishing options. But the price drop emerging from the growth in low-priced options is an important element for diffusion. In January, an online comparison tool for cost-effectiveness of open access journal publications was released, showing that the priciest options don't necessarily deliver authors more citations.

[caption id="attachment_3385" align="alignleft" width="147" caption="Open access logo designed by open-access mega-journal publisher PLOS"]Orange open access logo[/caption]

February: The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced the year's first major expansion of access policy - all federal agencies with large research budgets will now be expected to follow the National Institute of Health's (NIH) lead in providing public access to research publications within one year. The National Science Foundation (NSF) quickly announced it was working with other federal partners to implement the policy.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) proposed that after 2014, only open access articles would count in the UK's Research Excellence Framework (REF). That's the basis for determining a university's share of funding. National policymakers, though, were still debating last year's Finch Report on open access in England, with a new report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

CKAN open source software for data portals arrived. Many governments used it to expand open government data through the year. And Peer J published its first articles via its new model of easily affordable life-time open access publishing. “If we can take costs out of the system that can be used for better things like research, we can provide a benefit to the world,” said Peter Binfield, one of Peer J's founders.

March: Scientist and one of the founders of PLOS, Michael Eisen, laid out his perspective on "The Past, Present and Future of Scholarly Publishing." Jason Priem spelled out his vision of "Scholarship: Beyond the paper" in Nature - the journals, articles and pre-publication peer review of the pre-internet age would be superseded by digital release of open data and results, with post-publication filtering and review.

And in what one of them would describe as "a crisis of conscience" over scholars' rights in research at The Journal of Library Administration, the editor and entire editorial board resigned.

April: Science Europe, representing 51 European funding agencies, declared it would like to see embargo periods for publicly funded research published in journals reduced to six months. The Research Councils UK (RCUK) access policy came into effect, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) announced an open access policy.

May: The United Nations kept the policy announcement ball rolling with a call for a global drive on open data for development, and an open access policy for UNESCO. By the end of the year, UNESCO had released an open access repository.

In Berlin, at a meeting of the Global Research Council, the heads of 70 research funding agencies agreed on a commitment to open access. And the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was published, calling for hiring, promotion and funding decisions to no longer consider journal metrics and journal impact factors.

The Wellcome Trust extended its open access policy to cover monographs and book chapters.

[caption id="attachment_3359" align="alignright" width="256" caption="The pioneering science repository on 26 December 2013: over 900,000 articles"]Screenshot from arXiv[/caption]

June: The White House honored 13 Champions of Open Science, including Paul Ginsparg from arXiv, David Lipman from NCBI (the NIH publishers of PubMed and PMC), and open science's "Wunderkind," Jack Andraka. Andraka would reach another cultural milestone in October - talking about open access on The Colbert Report.

Heather Morrison published "Economics of scholarly communication in transition," arguing that pressure to publish in high impact toll access journals creates an incentive that often works against the best interests of scholarly authors and their work. Meanwhile publishers of traditional journals announced CHORUS, aiming to channel the White House's OSTP expanded public access and data management away from public management towards their infrastructure.

July: Five years ago, Peter Suber welcomed the legislation establishing the NIH public access policy: "Measured by the ferocity of opposition overcome and the volume of literature liberated, this is the largest victory so far in the open access movement." July saw a major step at the giant biomedical research funder: continued release of funding grants would be dependent on investigator compliance with the public access policy.

July also marked the date that publications from research funded by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) were due to start appearing in repositories.

August: The Academic Senate of the University of California (UC) passed a resolution for an open access policy. As with many universities policies, Michael Eisen argued this was more in principle than a policy able to have far-reaching impact.

September: The European Research Council (ERC) became the first European funding agency to join arXiv - the open access preprint repository that started in physics, expanding to mathematics, quantitative biology, statistics, computer science and quantitative finance. Starting in 1991, arXiv is fast approaching one million articles.

One of the papers now in arXiv is the work of Timothy Vines and colleagues on how quickly research data becomes inaccessible if it's not in data repositories. It was presented at a conference I posted on here in September. (More details in my comment on its abstract in PubMed.)

And there was another installment in England's debate over open access policy. A Commons Select Committee tackled a policy question whose implications worry many in other parts of the world too: the sustainability of large-scale funding of journal access fees rather than favoring public repositories.

[caption id="attachment_3391" align="alignleft" width="194" caption="Comments in PubMed's discussion forum went public in December 2013"]PubMed Commons graphic[/caption]

October: There was a major development for open access post-publication peer review when a semi-closed pilot of a PubMed commenting system called PubMed Commons was announced. You can read more about its release and the response to it in my post and Storify. By December, the beta test was over and the public release rolled out. (Conflict of interest disclosure: I am involved in PubMed Commons as part of my day job.*)

PubMed Commons was released in Open Access Week, held annually in the last week of October and marked by hundreds of events. The need for continued advocacy and public education was underscored that month by John Bohannon's latest sting operation: submitting a spoof manuscript to open access journals.

November: Germany's new ruling Grand Coalition announced a commitment to the legislation, governance and infrastructure - including digitization and repositories - needed for comprehensive open access to publicly funded research and data. Argentina's Senate ratified legislation for open access of nationally-funded science research, including development of a repository.

CC4, Creative Commons 4.0 was released, in part to accommodate European data requirements. CC licenses provide a common language for access and re-use rights.

A student initiative to put denied research on the map launched in November. It's called the Open Access Button. You download it onto your bookmark bar. When you hit a paywall for research, hit the button – it logs it, adds it to a public map, and you can get it to hunt for access too.

December: PLOS passed the 100,000 article milestone. New Nobel Laureate Randy Shekman raised a stir by committing to open access and arguing that the "luxury journals" "damage science." Shekman is editor-in-chief of eLife, an open access journal that's a researcher and funder collaboration.

The Secretary of State in the Netherlands notified parliament of the Administration's strengthened commitment to open access. They plan to coordinate positions with other European countries and require annual reports of scientific publications and their access status.

[caption id="attachment_3397" align="alignright" width="179" caption="SCOAP3: Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics"]SCOAP3 logo[/caption]

And CERN announced SCOAP3. After negotiation between partners in 24 countries, "a vast fraction" of publications in High-Energy Physics will be open access, with authors retaining copyright and licenses enabling re-use.

What a year! So what about the question I started off with? Has open access reached critical mass yet? It has surely passed that point in some branches of science, like biomedicine and physics. Totally closed publications in those areas will be in a reducing minority.

In many branches of science, though, it's not too late to become an early adopter. When it comes to open science, most science academics are still old school. But there is critical mass among their major public funders. That weight should keep open access momentum gaining in 2014.


Recent overviews on the state of open access include:

  • Richard Poynder's interviews from earlier this year, and Chris Diaz's review of them;
  • Meredith Farkas' "Open access everything" looking at library and university initiatives in open access research, textbooks and more; and
  • Mark Carrigan's "open-source academic" summing up philosopher Daniel Little's reflections on open and innovative approaches to publishing research and current incentives driving over-production of academic articles.

The Statistically Funny cartoon is my original (Creative Commons, non-commercial, share-alike license).

Disclosure: I’m an academic editor at PLOS Medicine, an open access medical journal.

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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