I had the pleasure of representing IUPAC at a seminar on Open Access to Scientific and Technical Information held in Paris in January 2003, organized by INSERM, CNRS-INIST, and ICSTI, and supported by ICSU and CODATA. What is Open Access (OA), and why should it matter to IUPAC's Committee on Printed and Electronic Publications (CPEP)? According to David Prosser of SPARC Europe (an organization that aims to reduce the costs of access to learned publications), Open Access is a call for free, unrestricted access, on the public Internet, to the literature that scholars give to the world without expectation of payment. It aims to accelerate research, enrich education, allow sharing of learning between richer and poorer nations and enhance the return on taxpayer investment in research. This would be achieved by using existing funds to pay for dissemination rather than access.
In technological terms, OA is described by Jack Franklin, in a background paper written for the conference, as an attempt to establish "common standards whereby articles stored on compliant servers can form a global library, allowing searching, data retrieval, cross-linking and stable long term archiving". Until now, learned societies and commercial publishers have cornered the market for such facilities: publishing in refereed journals which have "high impact" is currently the key to recognition, tenure and promotion for scientists. Since it would be prohibitively expensive to give all researchers in all countries access to all the information in up to 20,000 learned journals and countless databases, OA has been described as a technology for "giving the science back to the scientists" or allowing academia to take back control of scholarly communication.
Stevan Harnad, of Southampton University in the UK, was an early and exceedingly enthusiastic pioneer in this field. He claims that OA is not a struggle against publishers or an attempt to replace them, but it is a parallel movement. It does not aim to solve the budgeting problems of libraries and give access to all in the Third World, although it might, as a side effect, do so. Instead, its main goal is to persuade scientists to mount their papers on institutional servers, giving access to all, so that the results may form the basis of further work and research may progress faster. Higher citation counts on the server would indicate the importance of articles and contribute to the prestige and upkeep of the institution.
E-prints are slowly gaining visibility although institutional servers as recommended by Harnad have not proved as popular as discipline-based preprint servers such as the well known ArXiv for physics and related sciences. A Chemistry Preprint Server (CPS) was launched more recently. The Open Archives Initiative protocol for metadata harvesting (OAI-PMH) sets standards for interoperability of archives, so that the reader can access all of them from a single interface.
Preprints are not peer-reviewed but OA peer-reviewed journals are also beginning to appear. For example, all the original research articles in the journals published by BioMed Central are immediately and permanently available online without charge or any other barriers to access. Public Library of Science has recently announced that it will launch two OA journals.
The concept of open access is of particular importance to scientists in the developing nations. In response to a World Health Organization (WHO) poll, scientists in 130 such countries expressed three needs. First they want access to journals such as Nature and The Lancet. Second, they want to be recognized by publishing in the top international journals; they need international recognition in order to get funding. Third, they need help with duplicate publishing: they need to publish in both local and international journals. The first need had the highest priority so WHO tackled it first in the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) , said Barbara Aronson of the WHO. A so-called North-South knowledge gap is caused by the high cost of published refereed literature and a South-North gap by the high costs of local journal production and prejudices at mainstream northern journals. As a result, researchers are unable to get research published and cannot form partnerships with researchers abroad. This is most serious in disciplines where a global picture is required, such as AIDS, infectious diseases and environmental protection.
Those who do not see journals, do not publish in them. They are not peer reviewers. They do not go to meetings. Any price is too high for these scientists. They work with a sense of isolation. The poorest 75 countries have a GNP of less than $1000 per capita per year. A further 47 have GNP of $1000-3000. At the other end of the scale (represented by the audience in Paris) 20 countries have a GNP per capita of greater than $25,000. The lower the GNP, the higher the level of disease. In the 75 poorest countries, 56% of medical institutions have no subscriptions to journals and 21% have only 2 print subscriptions. In the next 47 countries, 34% of medical institutions have no print subscriptions and 34% have only 2 subscriptions.
So, WHO has worked with leading Internet publishers to provide access for the Third World in the HINARI project. Some 2100 journals are offered online through a user-friendly interface. That the system should be intuitive is vital because of the high cost of Internet access in some countries and because bandwidth is poor. HINARI has offered free access in 69 of the poorest countries since January 2002. In January 2003, low price access ($1000 per institution per year) was offered to a further 43 countries. As of January 2003, 438 institutions in 56 countries have taken up the free service and 247 institutions in 32 countries have low price access.
INASP from INTAS is another initiative aimed at the developing world. It promotes cooperation with scientists from the new independent states of the former USSR. It provides funding to facilitate access to online full text journal databases, it offers electronic document delivery services and it trains scientists in Information and Communication Technologies.
Kay Raseroka of Botswana, president-elect of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) led a panel discussion on how to insure that the developing nations can participate in OA initiatives. There was emphasis on visibility, raising awareness, and training. The Open Society Institute is negotiating national licenses and arranging training in some countries. Infrastructure, capacity and bandwidth need to be developed. Permanent local structures must be put in place; durability and sustainability are important. Policies in the country itself are important: things move faster if the government has an initiative.
So much for the ideal and the technology, but what about the economic, political, and legal realities? Sally Morris of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) discussed the economics of publishing. Peer review, copy-editing, maintaining electronic journals systems, customer support, linking, inclusion in abstracting and indexing services, and doing research for the future are expensive. Unfortunately, electronic publishing does not reduce costs as much as some people think.
Pieter Bolman of Elsevier questioned whether the OA approach was any better than the current model. The proposed "author pays" business model means that library funds have to be re-channeled to authors. Authors do not like page charges and libraries may resent further budget cuts. The OA model favors rich authors and there is no proof of its sustainability. Open Access is also not the answer to secure archiving.
Intellectual property issues were also discussed. Thomas Dreier of New York University concluded that information policy is largely influenced by the economic concerns of global players and copyright should not be held responsible for unsolved issues of information policy. Paul Uhlir of the National Academy of Sciences spoke of moving from intellectual property to "intellectual commons". Although researchers do want recognition, their motivation is mainly rooted in intellectual curiosity. Peer production (as in Project Gutenberg and NASA's Clickworks) is not dependent on monetary reward but on intellectual commons.
A political issue is that major research budgets do not take account of the costs of the dissemination of results or the building of databases. Indeed, researchers themselves often do not understand the costs and complexities of disseminating the results of their research, as evidenced by some of the project proposals that CPEP examines. Many of the issues surrounding OA and its economic models are still controversial and unresolved. Even learned societies, and committees such as CPEP, have to face the fact that society programs are to some (large) degree dependent on publishing income. There is, as they say, no such thing as a free lunch.