Open Access Week

October 25 -31, 2021 | Everywhere

Open Access (OA) publishing is, from my point of view, a logical consequence of the ideals of science because it enables a true open discussion about a certain research matter in the first place.  This aspect has however worn out over the past few decades.  Scientific research has become more and more an entrepreneurial endeavor rather than a collective effort for which an open discussion—including unexpected results—is instrumental.  Quick success stories have become more important than systematically designed, thoroughly conducted studies that may not yield desirable results.  It's sad, but true.

Beyond the purely ideological reason, that is, beyond bringing scientific research on the scientifically most ideal or consistent track from a publishing perspective, I feel that there is a strong societal component to OA publishing.  Researchers whose funding situation allows it should do their very best to make their insights available to people with little or, effectively, zero access and opportunities.  I'm thinking here about people from poor and developing regions of the world.  But equally about people from low-income communities in the researcher's country of residence where there are often numerous colleges that cannot pay the tremendous publisher-access fees.  Given that the Internet reaches so many people worldwide these days, the technological solution is in place—since a long time.  So, the true bottlenecks for meeting this societal responsibility on a broad scope is, in my experience, the will of principle investigators (PIs), the support of funding agencies to tackle the associated costs, and the cooperation of publishers to develop sensible and affordable OA options.  Below, I will share my (still limited) experience with OA publishing to increase awareness and hopefully bump up the number of openly accessible research results.

Last year, I published a paper on sodium chloride nucleation in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), the ACS's flagship journal.  At the end of the peer-review process, I urged my co-authors to go for an OA option.  I even suggested that I'd pay a large chunk of the costs by myself.  Fortunately, we had a person from the UK on board who had published OA with ACS in 2014 and, through this, held ACS publishing rewards which reduced our costs basically to zero.  My co-author told me that he got those rewards because his funding agency, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), demands OA publishing since April 1, 2013.  And, EPSRC strongly encourages researchers to go for the gold route (immediate access and maximum reuse opportunity).

The positive experience with the OA JACS paper made me push hard to get my next article, a data-science perspective on zeolite discoveries in Crystal Growth & Design (May, 2016), be also open access—in the most convenient way for any reader.  At that time, I had already switched institutions and mentors so that I found myself at Berkeley Lab.  The Lab retains the right to provide the public with open access to articles written and published by Lab affiliates (at least the pre-proofs version) via its Publications System (basically a document server).  Thus, I already had an easy way to make the paper OA.  But I thought it would be more helpful for people interested in the work to have the paper be openly accessible on the publisher's website.  My current mentor agreed to the argument and retrieved the needed funds to pay for the OA option.

Another recent experience of mine with Open Access—a rather passive experience however—was that I read about the ACS launching a chemistry preprint server, which is a positive development in my view.  Since decades, the Physical Science community has its arXiv server.  And, I have—honestly writing not without envy—seen many physicist colleagues putting their articles on arXiv while experiencing no restrictions whatsoever from the publishers to submit the papers to top-level physics journals.  In chemistry, the situation is different.  The two probably best-known heavyweight journals, JACS and Angewandte Chemie, have for decades successfully pushed back on such an effort in the field of chemistry.  Now that the ACS has fundamentally changed its view on OA and acts accordingly, criticism comes immediately from Angewandte's editor Peter Gölitz, complaining that the chemical preprint server move "has apparently not been coordinated with other chemical societies [...."  The criticism is understandable.  What would serve the Chemical Sciences community most is when the publishers, ACS and Wiley, team up.  But not for a self-serving purpose to promote their journals in a bipartisan way.  Rather, they should get other chemical societies, small and large, on board to fulfill their leadership role in a decent and most constructive way!

The most valuable, because most coherent, OA moves in the past few years have been the efforts by Frontiers, in my view.  Frontiers is a new publishing platform that is community-rooted and community-grown.  They promote constructive new review tools (e.g., real-time interactive review phase).  And, they strive for most democratic and representative evaluations of articles by providing a large array of impact metrics.  A good indicator of Frontiers's potential to take a leading role in the OA scientific publishing movement on the long run is that the Nature Publishing Group formed an alliance with them in 2013.  On the flip side, there were recent controversies about the integrity of Frontiers as an OA publisher.  If anything, these incidents show how volatile the entire movement still is—unfortunately.

Despite all these largely positive experiences and developments, I still find one aspect about OA particularly worrisome.  I see predominantly postdocs and PhD students push for OA papers and promote sensible OA mechanisms.  Thus, young researchers are the true driving force behind this effort.  Consequently, I use this post to issue a Call to Open Access that should, in particular, reach PIs, funding agencies, and publishers.  We are living in the 21st century in which public access to information and information-producing resources (e.g., software code) represent, at the same time, central challenges and super-strong sources of empowerment for people.  Do not shy away from your responsibility.  Endorse and actively pursue Open Access publishing to better support your local and our global community!

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