Open Access Week 2011: A Short History of Open Access

Access to information is a basic human right.

Free exchange of scientific information forms the basis for economic, cultural, social and scientific development. Unfortunately the free exchange of information is severely compromised by the restricted access model of scientific publishers and the dependency of scientists on the publication of results in high impact restricted access journals.

 

This year the week of 24-30th of October is already the fifth edition of a worldwide Open Access Week , with activities ranging from international Conferences to local awareness campaigns.  Among the many events for this year two stand out: Open Access Africa 2011 in Accra and the 9th Berlin Open Access Conference in Washington DC. An overview of all the events for 2011 can be found here, and on the internet site of openaccessweek. The latter site also contains contact information for Open Access groups in different countries and it acts as an organizing network for individuals and groups working towards open access.

 

I want to use the Open Access Week 2011 as an opportunity to provide you with a brief look at the history of the open access movement, and review the events that have led to the present status.

 

The advent of the internet and its endless possibilities for information processing and distribution has been acting as a catalyst for the growth  of open access initiatives. The internet provided the tool to free scientists from the unwanted and unwarranted restricted access to information imposed by the publishers.  In 1991 Paul Ginsparg started the first free scientific online archive for physicists, arXiv.org. The Archive has been a huge success ever since. Notably, and in contrast with popular belief, the publishing of articles in arXiv has had no effect on journal subscriptions in physics; even though the articles are freely available, usually before publication.

 

1998 Saw the launch of the American Scientists Open Access Forum, but the Open Access movement for the Life Sciences only really gained momentum in 2001. In that year 34,000 scholars around the world signed "An Open Letter to Scientific Publishers" calling for "the establishment of an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form". The result was the establishment of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), and its transformation into an open access publisher with a number of Open Access Journals, PLoS ONE being the most recent addition.

 

 The Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002 was the first global Open Access initiative. Attending scientists were asked to sign an agreement to preferentially publish their findings in open access journals. This agreement can still be signed online today.  In 2003, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities was published after a Conference with that name. This year (2011) the 9th Berlin open access conference will be held, now for the first time in North America, in Washington DC.

 Libraries, confronted with increasing costs for subscriptions and decreasing budgets have been instrumental in the promotion of Open Access. The average cost per journal has been rising at a rate far above inflation for decades, and publishers made , and nowadays still make 30-40 % profits.  SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to ‘’correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system’’. The European counterpart SPARCEUROPE promotes open access at European universities and institutions. NEBELAC is is a network for collaboration between Europe and Latin-American Caribic countries. Also in Europe, the EU Commission for the Digital Agenda has launched the OPENAire initiative. Scientists receiving European research grants are required to put their results in freely accessible repositories. This so-called green road to open access has now been adopted by universities and institutions worldwide. Many of them have either made commitments to open access, or are in the process of reviewing their policies and procedures. The renowned Harvard and Princeton universities recently joined this group.

 Most Open Access journals of today work according to the principles of the so-called ‘gold road’ where authors have to pay a fee to publish in these journals.  There is however a third option called Open Access 2.0, where reading and publishing is both free of charge. Examples of this are still scarce. WebmedCentral is one example, JIDC (Journal of Infection in Developing countries) is another. The Dutch Malaria Foundation has plans to publish a malaria research journal in Open Access 2.0. The following picture (courtesy: Bart Knols, Chairman of Advisory Board at Dutch Malaria Foundation) depicts these three publishing models with the red arrow indicating the flow of funds.

Both the green road and the gold road, while offering open access reading, are still restrictive for authors. Especially authors in developing countries will often be faced with unaffordable publication fees and thus restricted access. The current preference of publishers for either the green or the gold road to open access could at least be partly due to the fact that these models can easily be derived from the existing model and still guarantee the publishers (un)fair profit margins.

The only way then to fully unrestricted open access is offered by the no-fee publication model of Open Access 2.0.  However as this model demands for a complete new business model with considerably less profit, it will very likely be met with fierce opposition from the publishers.

But we have to be faithful to our essential ideal – that science belongs to all humanity – and join together in bringing it about.We can not allow the world to be divided into those with ready access to knowledge and its benefits, and those without.  And we are not powerless. Speaking up and sharing our ideas on media like MalariaWorld will allow us to devise strategies for the creation of an open knowledge society, where knowledge is seen as a common human heritage which should be of benefit to all.

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