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Free science: The importance of open access research

Academic publishing might not be the most riveting topic you’ve heard about. As a student, it may not even be one that you’ve thought about too much. But while we are lucky that Warwick provides access to thousands of research papers, once we leave university, this access expires. And with much of the most influential research hidden behind paywalls, we can often lose touch with the topics we once spent years invested in.

Paywalls on academic journals can be steep. Many journals’ costs are in the thousands, with single articles setting you back tens, sometimes hundreds, of pounds. What’s more, when working in science, one journal is often not sufficient. This is especially the case for research that crosses disciplines, when it’s a requirement to look at a multitude of research fields published across different journals. Moreover, academics don’t get paid for their journal contributions. In fact, you often have to pay to publish in journals. Peer reviewers, who make sure research is of a high enough quality to be published, also typically aren’t paid. A journal subscription for a university can cost thousands of dollars, and these prices continue to rise.

It enhances interdisciplinary research and can facilitate global collaboration

Open access research is seen as the solution to this. It refers to research that anyone can access, for free, to read, download, and redistribute with no additional costs. And it’s important for a variety of different reasons. For authors, open access articles can provide more views and citations than those behind a paywall, increasing their impact and reach. This allows other researchers to see the cutting-edge of research and enable them to build on it, accelerating the pace of innovation. It enhances interdisciplinary research and can facilitate global collaboration. For businesses, it can provide access to the latest research which can also encourage innovation, stimulating new ideas, products, services, and even jobs. But some of the biggest benefits come to the wider public. It gives anybody the information that they need to advocate for policy changes, to distribute research findings outside of the academic community, and to further their knowledge on any topic they find interesting. 

With all of this in mind, why is it that not all research is open access? It’s a complicated question to answer. There are a variety of different journals, but over half of these are published by just five companies, creating a market controlled by a small number of players. These publishers argue that going open access would actually increase costs and damage the quality of academic research. They also have a huge library of work that they can data-mine to provide analytics on research trends, provide recommended articles to scientists, and suggest potential collaborators based on research interests, which are big benefits to many researchers.

Some feel that open access journals are less prestigious and lower quality

In 2018, a group of research funders decided that it was time to change the system. They declared that any research they funded must be made open access as soon as it was published. In 2021, this pledge – known as Plan S – started to be implemented. Funders ranging from the European Commission to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now require their funded research to be free to read. Over 10% of research in the world’s most reputable journals is thought to be funded by institutions that have signed up to Plan S, representing a vast number of articles that must be made open access.

So far, though, the success of Plan S has been limited. Many agencies, including some of the most influential in the US and China, are reluctant to sign up to the pledge. Journals often generate revenue for open access articles by increasing per-paper author fees, which means scientists and institutions that can’t afford the fees can’t publish their work – these fees can range anywhere from $500 to $5000. Academic culture rewards researchers for publishing in the most reputable journals, and some feel that open access journals are less prestigious and lower quality.

If Plan S isn’t working right now, then what can be done to improve open access research? Scientists are increasingly using tools to help circumvent the extortionate paywalls of journals. Academics often publish ‘preprints’ – these are draft publications of their work that anyone is free to access. There are also pirate websites, known as ‘shadow libraries’, where academic papers can be accessed for free, but this is largely without the consent of the original authors.

Over time, perhaps the academic culture will shift to one where researchers are judged only on what they publish, and not where they publish. For now, though, the debate on open access continues.

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