The University of Hawaii at Manoa Library celebrates open access week with a panel discussion and presentation on campus. Both are free and open to the public. “Open access week” sounds suspiciously like a boondoggle, not unlike “dairy week” or “safety week”. Is this just another excuse for meetings and a free lunch, or is there something more to the issue?
We hear about new scientific results every day in the news. Sometimes the latest results conflict with former reports, such as whether or not women should undergo hormone replacement therapy or if vaccines are safe. Scientists make all these results available by publishing their results in a journal specializing in the subject. Journalists rely on these reports to inform the public. The public, in turn, relies on the information to make health decisions with their doctors. The more respectable the journal, the thinking goes, the more reliable the result.
But recent scandals challenge this thinking. Take the recent case of Merck creating an entirely fake journal, The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, published by the established company Elsevier. Elsevier also publishes many well-respected journals, such as the Journal of Pediatrics and the Journal of Urology. Turns out that Merck created the fake journal and passed it off as a peer-reviewed publication entirely as a marketing tool for its anti-arthritis drug, Vioxx., and a bone drug. Fosamax. A newspaper in Australia, The Australian, broke the story in April 2009.
The case of the fake medical journal provides us with a strong ethical arugment for open access journals–such as those published by the Public Libray of Science (PLoS), BioMed Central and the Open Humanities Press— because they provide the greatest amount of transparency in the flow of scientific results. Manuscripts submitted to open access journals undergo the same scrutiny by peers as other journals. But they are much harder to game or fake.
The reason open access journals increase transparency is that they allow scientists to retain the copyrights to their published work while allowing open and free distribution of the results worldwide. This removes the barriers to access erected by publications by requiring a subscription.
Elsevier and Springer, another major publisher, have responded to the scandal by creating a hybrid open-acess option for some of its journals. Authors publishing in some subscription-based journals can pay a fee to make their articles immediately available to nonsubscribers upon publication. However, these publishers may limit how the article can be reused.
There is another argument in support of open access research journals. The public pays for a large fraction of scientific research through tax dollars to funding agencies, such as the NIH and NSF. Despite this, the closed-access journals take copyright ownership of work when published, and they block free public access. Further, the closed-access journals can prevent the published scientist from distributing the work, including posting the article on her website.
Government, funding agencies, academic institutions have made three major public statements on open access, the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative, and two from 2003: the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the Berlin Declaration.