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Open Access: What It Means for You
by Jennifer McCabe

If you follow discussions about the rising costs of serials or the “crisis” in scholarly communication, you may have heard the term “open access” applied to either journals or publishing in general.  And if you are like many people, you can barely keep up with developments in your field, let alone those that may be considered tangential.  This article will explain the open access publishing model, and help you understand why it matters to you and how you can participate.    

Open access refers to a publication that meets two conditions according to the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing.  The first condition is that the author(s) and/or copyright holder(s) of an article grants all readers “free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access” to the article as well as the right to “distribute, transmit and display” the work with proper attribution of authorship.  The second condition is that a complete version of the article be included in a stable online repository set up for the purpose of enabling open access.  Open access can be the property of an individual article or it can be the policy of a specific journal.

In plain language, this means that the authors retain copyrights to their work, so that no second or third party may profit from it, and the work immediately goes into a publicly accessible archive.  The goal of the open access movement is to decrease the obstacles between the discovery of scientific information and the application of it to our lives.  Under the traditional model of publishing, scientific discoveries were published in journals owned and operated by outside parties, who then assumed all copyrights to the articles, and could turn around and profit from them. 

Based on the traditional model, publishers were able to profit from the research of the scientific community by essentially charging scientists for access to their own work via library subscriptions.  During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the publishing industry experienced significant consolidation through a flurry of corporate mergers.  The result of this was not only diminished diversity in the marketplace, but inflation in journal prices.  For example, in 1991 Reed-Elsevier acquired Pergamon, which resulted in a 10 percent price increase for Reed-Elsevier journals.  Similar increases have been documented in relation to other mergers.  Most striking, however, is the fact that between 1986 and 2000 inflation rates for journal subscriptions surpassed that of both college tuition and medical care!

Inflation in journal prices ultimately sucked money away from other areas of the library budget; students and faculty suffered as librarians made excruciating decisions to cancel journal subscriptions.  Finally, scientists, consumers, librarians, and other interested parties banded together to figure out how to leverage the flexibility of the Internet to their advantage.  Thus the open access movement was born. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine have led the movement to make quality information available over the Internet.  PubMed, the publicly accessible interface for searching Medline, became freely available to users worldwide in 1997.  This was followed in 1998 by the creation of MedlinePlus, a consumer oriented website that aims to take the science of PubMed and arrange it in a way that consumers can understand.  The use of the Internet to provide quality information was taken to a new level in 2003 when the National Library of Medicine partnered with the American College of Physicians- American Society of Internal Medicine Foundation to provide clinicians with information prescription pads they could give their patients.  The pads contained Internet resources culled from MedlinePlus that patients could use to get more information on their condition. 

To further the cause of open access, the NIH recently introduced proposed rules stating that the results of the research they fund must be disseminated through open access journals and included in PubMed Central, the archive they maintain.  But the NIH initiative is not the only one out there.  Currently there are many projects underway to help expand access to scholarly research.  Examples include the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Biomed Central, HighWire Press (partial open access), and the Public Library of Science (PLoS).  Many open access sources include an “embargo” period for some journals; typically a three to six month delay before the articles are available for free.  This provision is designed to help publishers retain their competitiveness, as the most recent editions still require payment for use.     

Each of these initiatives includes many journals on a variety of topics.  PubMed Central alone contains 161 full text open access biomedical journals, all of which meet the criteria for scholarly journals.  The embargo period for PubMed Central ranges from 0 to 24 months.  The DOAJ archive currently has 60,090 articles from 1266 journals covering topics from agriculture to zoology.  Some open access archives, like BioMed Central, require that authors pay the fees associated with publishing.  If author pay plans become the predominant model for open access journals, it is likely that the cost of publishing will be included in the grant funds.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) is an organization of academic libraries and others who are working together to address and correct publishing “market dysfunction”.  SPARC has helped academic librarians to formulate strategies for dealing with skyrocketing journal prices and the challenge of communicating with faculty about the crisis in publishing.   

JMU Libraries is supporting open access by making a number of open access journal collections available to our students and faculty alongside the rest of the scholarly literature.  Users can use our Periodical Locator to search for these titles by choosing the option to “browse by online collection” and choosing an open access provider.  

Faculty at JMU can support open access by publishing in, editing for, and peer reviewing for open access journals.  While this may be impractical in some cases, we encourage scholars to help support publishers who are making a transition to open access.  When evaluating your colleagues’ tenure and promotion materials, consider inclusion in open access journals as a criterion.  Preliminary research has shown that articles published in open access journals are cited more often than those published in traditional journals.  Scholars who intentionally choose open access journals as a means of disseminating their findings are making a significant contribution to society as a whole.  Additionally, SPARC has written an “author’s addendum” that can be attached to a publisher’s copyright form, to assure that authors retain copyright to their own work.

If you do research that is funded by the National Institutes of Health it is likely that you will be hearing a lot about open access in the coming months.  And if the NIH rule requiring that sponsored research be published in open access journals goes into effect, it is possible that other agencies will follow suit.  Open access publishing benefits scholars by making research findings more widely available, libraries by making journal subscription prices more reasonable and the public by making research findings more accessible. 


Illustration source:  Open Access Now website at http://www.biomedcentral.com/openaccess/

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