Imagining the Future of Open Access

The following is an excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

Allowing scientific research to be freely available is increasingly important for many researchers and funding organizations. The thought is that if research is freely available, it can be built upon with ease and used to further scientific discovery. These breakthroughs, in turn, can lead to economic and social improvements that will better society.

“[Open access] will become the standard. It already seems to be in Europe,” says Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation Co-Editor-in-Chief William Jorgensen. The European Union took center stage on this issue with its mandate that by 2020, all scientific articles using public or public-private funds in Europe must be freely available. Many European funders and institutions have been issuing their own mandates regarding open access, but until now they were not converging around one model.

In the U.S., the public access policy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the country’s largest funding agencies, is widely known. It requires all research published with NIH funds to be made publicly available in 12 months or less on PubMed. Effective April 2008, this was the first policy in the U.S. to mandate some form of open access on a large scale. Many other funding agencies followed suit. By tying funding to open access requirements, these organizations have helped make open access the de-facto standard for researchers in many fields. Open access in the U.S. is converging around the 12-month model, with some notable exceptions, which requires immediate open access under a CC-BY license. U.S. publishers, including ACS journals, offer a variety open access options to fit researchers’ needs, including making articles open access upon publication.

In Latin America, the partnership between the research network ScienceOpen and the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) is a notable development. The partnership will fully integrate content from the two sources for a more global perspective on the scientific literature. All SciELO content is universally accessible for free in an open access, full-text format. With the inclusion of SciELO, ScienceOpen now contains more than 2.2 million open access articles. ScienceOpen will also have more than 15 million article records upon full integration.

Why is this happening now? Technology is one factor. Infrastructure for open access transaction models is becoming more robust, making open access quicker, simpler, and easier to measure. Funders realize this and are increasing mandates on any research published with their funds to be made freely available so it can have a wider impact. Openness also means that results can be tracked with greater precision. Funders can use these insights to learn which research is most relevant and make better funding decisions in the future.

Researcher attitudes toward open access publishing may also be changing. The initial surge of for-profit open access publishing created a wave of low-quality journals that would publish anything for a price. But now the field includes many not-for-profit publishers with a different set of motives, which have helped the sector grow to more than 4.3% of the scientific, technical, and medical journal publications market as of 2014.

Publishers and others are developing tools both for funders and authors to make open access research more sustainable. Researchers now must determine who will pay the article processing charges for open access. Is it the author, the funder, or the author’s institution? They also need to know the optimal license to publish under to meet all funder requirements. Funders, on the other hand, need to be able to track payments and measure the impact of the research they fund. New models and tools have sprung up to meet these needs and more are doubtless on the way.

An example of this is FundRef, a common tool employed by ACS Publications and other publishers. FundRef allows the corresponding author to report their funders during the submission process. If an article is accepted, the author will automatically be emailed with reminders of the funder’s requirements and what publisher open access licenses will meet these requirements. This helps perpetuate the cycle of open access, ensuring a funder’s needs are met and researchers can continue to benefit.

The problems with open access, including sustainability and misuse of content, are still very real. But the conversation has now shifted. People are no longer asking “Is open access necessary?” but rather “How do we deal with issues within current open access models?” For those who believe science should be open, that’s significant progress.

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