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Open Access 

Knowledge freely-distributed

A UK initiative will show how much of the world’s scientific knowledge can be made available on the Internet

LARISSA RIBEIROLibrarians, IT experts and researchers from a number of fields gathered in late October 2012 during events in over one hundred countries to discuss the various modes of open access, a method of sharing knowledge that involves a series of strategies designed to distribute scientific scholarship openly and free of charge via the Internet.  Talks held during Open Access Week 2012, an initiative launched by an international alliance of university libraries, considered issues such as the influence of digital platforms on the way science is pursued But the talks were also marked by a milestone reached just recently.  In July 2012, the government of the United Kingdom announced that, as of 2014, all publically-funded science research will be available free of charge via electronic media.  The new policy means that no one will have to pay for access to papers published by British researchers who receive funding from government agencies.

The UK initiative is significant owing to the magnitude of that nation’s scientific output: according to Thomson Reuter’s data, almost 8%, of all articles published worldwide each year.  This experience could modify international standards for open access, which currently can be provided in either of two ways.  One is called Gold OA (“golden road”), where the journals allow free and immediate access to their online content.  Typical examples of the Gold OA  publication strategy are journals in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and the magazine collection of the SciELO Brasil library, a program financed by FAPESP.  The second mode is called Green AO (“green road”), where the researcher self-archives a copy of the science paper published in a commercial journal in his institution’s database, which serves as an open-access repository for those wanting to read the article free of charge.  Variations of these access strategies have been devised as well.  Some publications allow authors to self-archive versions of their articles in repositories, although public access is allowed only six-months to one year after publication so that earnings can be maintained during this initial period. Other methods forego any restriction and publish articles on the Internet even before the print edition is released, although the author might be charged an additional fee owing to the free and open access privilege.  This latter method is referred to as “Hybrid” open access, as the publications provide both openly-accessed papers in the typical golden road manner as well as papers in the conventional way, i.e., requiring fees or reader subscriptions.

Today, more than 20% of the world’s published research can be openly-accessed, and in the UK this figure is close to 35%.  The Green AO procedure is  more common: with the exception of articles related to medicine, there are more articles in repositories than there are in open access journals (see table, page 38).  The UK initiative could, however, alter this trend. The Finch Committee, set up to propose how UK-funded research findings can be made more accessible, suggested that adopting the Gold OA be made a priority and journals be paid a premium for allowing open access to their articles. With this development, the Green OA institutional repositories – frequently utilized by British researchers – could come to play a weaker role in making science-related articles published in subscriber journals accessible to the public.


Although the Research Councils UK (RCUK) have taken the position that the repositories will not be discontinued, the expectation among publishers is that articles published in Great Britain will be subject to a hybrid system of access.  “Journals will surely extend the embargo period before articles can be accessed in repositories, thereby forcing the authors to pay more for open access publishing rights,” says Stevan Harnad, a Hungarian researcher living in Canada who publishes science journals and is active in the open-access movement.  Should this trend in fact prevail, ever greater expenditures will be required of authors and their institutions to publish their papers.  Such an outcome runs counter to open access, the purpose of which is to simplify the distribution of scientific research and lower its cost with the help of digital media.  According to the Finch Committee report, the Gold OA strategy will require an additional investment of between £40 and £50 million per year, £38 million of which would be channeled to open access publishing fees.  “Making the transition to the golden road will generate more expenses that should be avoided,” claims  Peter Suber, director of Harvard University’s Open Access Program and researcher for SPARC, an association of research libraries that hosted the 6th Open Access Week.

According to Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of the SciELO Brasil library, the next phases of this battle will force the large publishing houses to abandon their current level of profits.  “Publishers provide a benefit that requires investments in both technology and peer reviewing that must be profitable; but the profits of these companies – on the order of 30 to 40%  – are disproportionate,” he claims.  “We now need to agree on who has to pay the bill and how to guarantee that fees – necessary in order to maintain the quality of the publications – can be absorbed by the universities and the authors,” adds Meneghini. Still another round in the battle between scientists and the publishing houses took place in February, when Elsevier, publisher of more than 2,000 periodicals, was denounced for its support of a bill in the US senate that sought to reverse a 2008 National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy requiring open access to all NIH-backed research.  Renowned scientists, including three mathematicians, winners of the Fields Medal, organized a boycott against the Elsevier journals that lasted until the publisher finally withdrew its support of the bill.  “We listened to the concerns of authors, publishers and editors who claimed the bill was inconsistent with our traditional support for the expansion of free or low-cost access to scientific literature,” says an Elsevier spokesman. The publisher went on to announce a price reduction for downloads of each of its mathematics articles from approximately R$45.00 to R$19.00.

034-039_RevistasAbertas_201-3Jorge Guimarães, president of the Coordinating Agency for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes), believes that negotiations with the publishing houses can in fact reduce the cost of gaining access to articles published in online journals. “We have done this ourselves in the Capes Journals portal, and it’s working,” says Guimarães in describing a database that includes more than 33,000 unabridged periodicals from all over the world, covering every field of knowledge.  To access the database, one must be a teacher or researcher affiliated with an institution that is registered with Capes. “Ten years ago, the cost of accessing the1,800 periodicals consumed almost 10% of our budget.  Today, we access 33,000 periodicals using 4.2% of our budget,” says Guimarães.  “It’s such a solid initiative that Brazilian researchers who are doing their internships in the United States or in Europe prefer to use the Capes portal rather than the portals offered by their host institutions, which provide less-thorough access to periodicals,” claims Guimarães, who is skeptical about the outcome of the UK initiative.  “The British need to experiment with this model before they implement it,” he says, adding that “imposing a regime of open access could cause the British to stop publishing in highly influential periodicals like Nature, and they certainly would not want to do that.” The expansion of open access would also lead to additional costs, according to Guimarães. “It’s not enough to establish open access without considering the other components,” he says. “If they can’t charge for access to the periodicals, then the databases will charge, for example, a fee to do a search using their tools, and these tools are essential for any researcher who wants to keep up with his field,” adds the Capes president.

Scientists have long defended the idea that knowledge must be freely disseminated in order for society to fully avail itself of its benefits. But open access only really took root in the 1990’s with the advent of the Internet and its capacity to distribute information at a low cost.  The worldwide web of computers encouraged the development of initiatives such as the arXiv repository created in 1991, through which researchers disseminate data related to their studies and submit it for peer review prior to publication.  The arXiv currently maintains almost 800,000 papers in the fields of mathematics, physics, computer science, quantitative biology and statistics that can be accessed online. Information pertaining to the CERN particle accelerator, for example, was initially disseminated via the arXiv archive, which has come to be regarded as a tool for the sharing of information among specialists in the field of high-energy physics.  During the first decade of this century, initiatives were put in place to find a direction for open access.  In 2003, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a non-profit organization for the creation of openly-accessed science publications, launched PLoS Biology, the first of the institution’s seven journals.  This collection of journals is viewed as a successful example of open access publications, owing to the modest fees charged their authors and for achieving a greater impact factor than most other open access journals.  The impact factor of PLoS One, for example, is 4, which means each of its articles is cited an average of four times in other publications.  When one of the PloS journals accepts a science article, a payment of US$1,350 is required of its author.  The paper can then be openly-accessed by both scientists and lay readers.   If published in a traditional print journal of a large publishing house, the average cost to the author would be US$2,000 per paper. But readers are also charged for access, either through subscriptions or for purchasing a copy of the individual article.  Over the past few years, prestigious universities have shown an interest in making their knowledge accessible through the web. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched the MIT OpenCourseWare, an initiative to place the entire educational content of its courses online.  In 2008, Harvard University instituted a policy whereby the research of its scholars would be distributed online through an open access repository.

034-039_RevistasAbertas_201-4Data have been gathered that point to the expansion of open access. The number of open access journals has experienced a sharp increase over the past decade.  Figures from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) show that the number of registered publications soared from 741 in 2000 to 8,282 in 2012.  Adherence to the open access regime varies from one area of knowledge to the other (see table).  A study published in 2010 in the magazine PLoS One that analyzed a sampling of science papers revealed that research chemists are the least likely (13% of all papers) to rely on  open access, while earth scientists are the most prone to publish open access papers (33%).  The number of institutional repositories worldwide skyrocketed from 250 in 2003 to 2,300 in 2012.  “These advances, however, have yet to replace traditional methods of communicating scientific knowledge. There’s still a strong demand among researchers, especially the higher-level ones, to want to publish in high-impact journals associated with the big publishers,” says Rogério Meneghini of SciELO.

Brazil ranks second among countries with the greatest number of open access journals, with 782 publications accounted for by DOAJ. Only the United States, with 1,260, can boast a greater number. “Brazil’s trajectory has been unique,” says Professor Pablo Ortellado, of the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities of the University of São Paulo (USP) and member of that university’s Public Policy Group for Access to Information. “Thanks to the creation of the SciELO Brasil library,” says the researcher, “Brazil’s strategy is seen as a kind of free ride because, besides maintaining a number of open access journals with public funding, in most cases the authors are not charged for publishing. We have a very successful open access policy,” concludes Ortellado.

A special FAPESP project launched in 1997, the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO),  contained, by the end of 2011, 239 publications encompassing every field of knowledge.  The library generates a monthly average of 36 million articles, freely and openly accessed via the Internet, amounting to 1.2 million every day.  A periodical is accepted into the collection only after being screened for quality, as determined, for instance, by the level of competence of its editorial board, its relevance to the specific field of knowledge, the regularity of the publication, and numerous other technical standards that govern the exchange of scientific information worldwide.  Thanks to this improvement in quality, over the past five years more Brazilian periodicals were able to be included in international databases like Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science (WOS) and Elsevier’s Scopus.  In June 2012, FAPESP and the division of intellectual property and sciences of Thomson Reuters announced an agreement to combine the SciELO collection with that of the Web of Knowledge in order to form the world’s most comprehensive international database of scientific information.  Storing SciELO’s journals in the database represents an effort to increase Brazil’s visibility and access to scientific scholarship, as well as that of other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, together with South Africa, Spain and Portugal.

034-039_RevistasAbertas_201-5Pablo Ortellado points to a paradox in Brazil’s situation however: “The political impact of open access is small in the areas of research that are very international in character, such as physics and molecular biology, because their authors try to publish in highly prestigious international journals, and not in the Brazilian periodicals,” says the researcher.  For Ortellado, new strategies in the “green road” domain, that of institutional repositories, are needed for Brazil.  “The University of São Paulo (USP) has begun to put together a repository containing all the dissertations and papers by its researchers, but there are not many such examples in Brazil,” he says.  A bill introduced by Senator Rodrigo Rollemberg (PSB-DF) would require that public institutions of higher learning and research centers establish – with the support of public funding – repositories to store their scientific output.  Monographs, theses, dissertations and academic papers would be made freely-accessible via the Internet.  The Brazilian Institute of Scientific and technological Information (IBICT) supported the creation of 50 repositories throughout the country, besides establishing more than 700 web-based science journals via SEER, the Electronic System for Journal Editing.

In an effort to integrate all of these initiatives, IBICT has been developing OASISBR, a portal designed to bring together the content of digital repositories, the Brazilian Library of Theses and Dissertations, SciELO, and the content of Brazil’s web-based science journals. The objective is to include foreign repositories as well.  “Institutional repositories help accelerate research on a global scale,” says IBICT senior technologist Helio Kuramoto. “Articles deposited in repositories stand a greater chance of being cited and cited more quickly than when merely made available in print science journals. However,” he adds, “they acquire greater visibility and there are instances of dissertations being downloaded thousands of times, something that wouldn’t be feasible without the repositories.”