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Within the reach of all

Free access to scientific articles gains ground and changes the strategy of publishing houses

BRAZGaining ground in academic environments and editorial rooms throughout the entire world is the idea that scientific articles, above all those that are the product of public investment, have to be available on the electronic media, without the charging of fees or copyrights. This thesis goes back to the decade of the 1990s with the emergence of actions by researchers and institutions in defense of  the democratization of knowledge, but conquered the current circuits in 2003 with the launching of the Berlin Declaration and the Declaration on Access to Research Data from Public Funding Declaration, endorsed by organizations such as the  Max Planck Institute of Germany, and the National Scientific Research Center of France, as well as the science academies of 70 countries.

In the beginning, the initiative seemed to be utopian and of difficult application in a scientific communication system in which big publishers control the most prestigious magazines and hold the copyright about their articles. After all, it was the international scientific community itself that approved of the model in which it was up to the editors to appreciate, by way of peer evaluation, the content of the articles submitted for publication and to certify their relevance. With the advent of the internet, however, alternatives to this model were able to come forward. And open access revealed itself useful not only for the information consumers, but also for the authors, who managed to increase the visibility of their texts.

Various publishing houses editors found means of adapting themselves and, above all, of not losing money. The Oxford University Press, for example, in July of 2005, created a hybrid model of its publications, according to which the researchers could opt to publish their articles in line with the common model, with access restricted to subscribers during a determined period of time, or instead, with immediate access on the internet by paying an extra amount to the company for this. The experience was applied to 36 of the 49 titles published by the editor. “The acceptance level was greater in areas such as life sciences, where there seems to be more money to invest in open access”, said Claire Bird, the senior editor of  Oxford Journals, a division responsible for scientific publications of institutions. Three of these titles, in the areas of molecular biology and computing biology, reached the level of having 20% of their articles published in open access. In other areas, the performance was less significant. In medicine and public health magazines, 5% of the authors have opted for open access. With publications in the humanities and social sciences areas the index reached 3%. As a general average guideline, 10% of authors have opted for an open scheme. Oxford University is not convinced that such a model is going to become universal, but it will continue to offer the hybrid system. So much so that the subscription prices and those of the extra amount for on-line publication should be adjusted during 2007 in the magazines where the scheme was more sought after, in order to make up for the revenues reduction.

Today one can already count some 2,000 scientific publications with open access throughout the world. Only about two hundred of them are listed within the Thomson Scientific data base, the North American entity that indexes the 8,700 scientific periodicals considered to be the best in the world and produces indicators about the impact of these publications. A comparison of the open access magazines with the other 8,500 magazines reveals, in the first place, that the idea that open access publications, being out of tough model of the big publishers, and necessarily less consistent, is unfounded. “Only those publications that bring with them high quality information for use by researchers come into our base”,  says James Pringle, the vice-president of  Thomson Scientific. “If free access publications conform to this condition, they’re admitted. If not, they’re excluded.”

Some Thomson Scientific data base publications have experienced an increase in their impact factor – which is equivalent to the number of citations that their articles have had in other magazines – after they became open access. A study carried out by Rogério Meneghini, a retied professor from the Chemistry Institute of the University of São Paulo, and the scientific coordinator of the SciELO, the Brazilian free access electronic library, analyzed the trajectory of seven titles that participated both in the SciELO and in the Thomson ISI data base. Meneghini observed that between 1998 and 2004, the impact factors of these magazines grew on average 2.15 times. SciELO’s experience shows that free access also helps to give visibility to research done in the developing world. The library, maintained by the Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Science Information (Bireme), FAPESP and the CNPq, offers on the internet 158 scientific publications, the majority in Portuguese, which results in around 6 million consultations through the internet per month. Its collection has become one of the ten most accessed sources of information by users of Google Scholar, the Google tool specializing in academic research.

A group of researchers has been poring over the task of comparing the performance of free access publications and those franchised only by subscribers. “As yet there are no definite conclusions, but the available data suggests that there is an advantage for the model with free access, explains Rogério Meneghini. The most eloquent statistics come from those of a study done by the British researcher Timothy Brody, a professor at the University of  Southampton. It indicates that free access publications always have a greater impact in the case of articles in the biology area, there are 40% more citations within the free access system. And in arts and linguistics, this can reach a difference of 1,236%. The data was obtained based on the impact of articles published in free access magazines or only in those with subscribers to the Thomson Scientific data base.

BRAZGunther Eysenbach, from the University of  Toronto, Canada, monitored the number of times some 1,492 articles published in the electronic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences were cited in later studies. The journal follows that hybrid model adopted by the Oxford University Press. The content is restricted to subscribers. But, the authors can make their articles freely available on the internet, if they pay for it. Of the total of articles studied, part had open access and the other did not. Eysenbach verified that those with open access were cited twice as much as the other scientific papers during a four- month period after having been disclosed. On the other hand, James Testa, the editorial director of  Thomson ISI, placed in doubt the efficiency of free access by showing that, based on the performance of a group of journals in the pharmacology area, those with free access were not capable even of  having a quicker repercussion than the others. In the two groups the proportion of citations during the three years following the publication evolved at the same pace.

The promise of giving more visibility to a scientific article or of widening its impact only partially explains the growth of the free access model. The fact is that the movement, created during 2003,  has also been obtaining important political victories. In the United States, the House of Representatives recently approved a bill according to which all of the research funded with federal money in the country must, by obligation, be available to the public, whether it be in open access magazines or in repositories of researchers or institutions. The bill still has to be approved by the US Senate. The pressure has been the motivation for a growing number of magazines to change their model. The Plant Physiology, published since 1926 by the American Society of  Plant Biologists (ASPB), will  have open access as of  January of 2007 – and without any additional charge to its researchers. It is one of the most cited botanical magazines on the planet. In the same way, the Journal of  Nuclear Medicine and the Journal of  Nuclear Medicine Technology, published by the Society of  Nuclear Medicine, announced in September that its articles will be freely available, although only 12 months after their publication. New free access publications have been springing up with high frequency. The Public Library of Science (PLoS), an organization that has already published the open access periodicals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, announced in September the launching of a new title, directed exclusively to tropical illnesses neglected by the major research laboratories and the developed countries. In the United Kingdom, during August the Open Access Central came into being, which is making available on the internet the content of dozens of magazines in the areas of biomedicine and chemistry.

The researcher Suzana Pinheiro Machado Mueller, a professor at the Information Sciences Department of the University of Brasilia (UnB), observed that the free access initiatives are on the pathway towards legitimation. However, she points out that the expectation of the pioneers of the free access movement has not come to fruition. “Just like the Utopians of the Renaissance, some dreamed of a new system of communication, in which access to all scientific knowledge would become universal and without barriers”, wrote Suzana in her article entitled, “Scientific communication and the free access to knowledge movement.”

The genesis of the free access movement goes back to the so called crisis of the magazines,  in the middle of the decade of the 1980s, which emerged when American university libraries lost their capacity to deal with the growing costs of acquiring periodicals and they discontinued various collections. During the 1990s, the first initiatives emerged that broke the hegemony of the publishers, such as the archive of articles in the area of physics mounted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, during 1991. The authors sent their articles to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and simultaneously submitted them to the publishing houses. Daily the users of the system became aware that studies had been presented and that they could request a copy.

Also during this era the first free access periodical appeared. Today the concept has become much wider. It includes formats such as the research repositories maintained by universities and  the download of articles from the personal pages of authors. “Each one of these formats collaborates towards providing dynamism to scientific research, which, we trust, will help to accelerate the speed of scientific discoveries”, says Rogério Meneghini.