University of Iowa pushes for 'open access' to research

Advocates say open access creates new opportunities for ideas, research

A Maryland 16-year-old, inspired by the death of a family friend, recently developed a rapid and inexpensive screening method using Google, Wikipedia and YouTube for certain cancers.

The method has been called faster, cheaper and more sensitive than current diagnostic tests. But Jack Thomas Andraka might not have made the discovery were it not for a growing movement toward scholarly openness.

“Things like that can happen when there aren’t pay walls and barriers to scientific research,” said Chris Diaz, University of Iowa residency librarian for scholarly communications and collections.

“Open access” publishing is breaking down traditional barriers imposed through subscription-based scientific journals by creating new opportunities for ideas and research to be freely shared online. Open access publishers such as the Public Library of Science, BioMed Central and PeerJ are among those in the research community pushing to make open access to scholarly communication the norm.

The concept is gaining ground nationwide and in Iowa, and the UI this year launched a financial-aid program to encourage its scholars to publish research in open access platforms instead of just subscription-based journals.

The UI’s “open access fund” provides up to $3,000 per UI applicant to help pay processing fees related to open access publishing. The hope is to get more people familiar with the model and using it, said Michael Wright, UI interim associate university librarian for collections and scholarly communications.

“The goal is to promote open access scholarship and open access availability of ideas,” Wright said. “So much of this research is taxpayer funded. This makes it freely available to taxpayers.”

UI financial aid

Although open access makes research free to the public, it still costs publishers, who traditionally paid the bills through subscription fees. To cover their costs, many of the emerging open access publishers are charging scholars, which is where the UI financial-aid program comes in.

Launched in April through the University Libraries and the Office of the Provost, the UI so far has spent more than $25,000 helping more than 20 scholars pay fees associated with open access publishing.

The average award is between $1,000 and $1,500, and Wright said the UI could continue issuing open access grants even after the original commitment of $50,000 is gone.

“The group that put the guidelines together will meet to discuss the pros and cons and determine if this is something that can be sustainable,” he said.

The UI program helps authors pay for publication in full open access journals that allow immediate and free access and in hybrid journals that are subscription based but allow open access for an author fee.

The UI last month reported more than 75 UI faculty members have gone the open access route of publishing in the last calendar year, and Wright said there are more out there.

“I think it will continue to increase,” he said.

Pros and cons

Open access publishing in the United States took off in 2007 when the National Institutes of Health developed a public access policy requiring its funded research to be made available in a public repository.     

Other funding agencies since have adopted similar practices, and the White House earlier this year directed many of its agencies to make public access mandatory for grant recipients.

But open access critics have questioned the funding model and expressed concern about the review process involved with the new form of scholarly publication.

Wright agreed that some research published in open forums hasn’t been properly reviewed by peers.

“Some people are quick to make a buck honestly or dishonestly, and they aren’t concerned with providing honest peer review,” Wright said. “That is something the scholarly community is general concerned about.”

There are plenty of open access publishers with whom the peer review process is rigorous, he said. But because the movement is in its infancy, he said, “It’s a little bit of the wild west right now.”

Two vehicles for open access exist – open access archives or repositories and open access journals, according to Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication and the Harvard Open Access Project.

Archives and repositories don’t perform peer review but instead simply house research and make it freely available to the world, according to Suber. Journals do perform peer review before making approved content freely available, and that – along with manuscript preparation and server space – is what costs the publishers, Suber wrote in a summary of the topic.

How to cover those costs is part of the ongoing open access debate but, Suber said, “There’s a lot of room for creativity in finding ways to pay the costs of a peer-reviewed open access journal.”

And, among the benefits, are the rights it allows authors to retain. When publishing in a traditional subscription journal, researchers sign over their rights and can’t revise it or use it freely, UI librarian Wright said.

“They don’t own their intellectual property because they’ve signed it over to a publisher,” Wright said. “With open access, you retain your rights.”

A "hybrid" future

Bernd Fritzsch, professor and chairman of the UI Department of Biology, said he’s a big supporter of open access publishing and has been pushing it since before it gained momentum – for about 13 years.

“I am typically looking quite carefully at a different path of science,” Fritzsch said. “I want it to go in the new direction.”

He said open access will drive innovation and creation worldwide. He recently was contacted by a company in Germany trying to use research he published years ago.

“They couldn’t get access to it, and they asked for a reprint so they could look into it in detail,” he said. “So you basically have to come back to the author and ask that author for a copy, which is delaying your idea flow.”

Criticism about open access peer review doesn’t concern Fritzsch, he said, because the traditional peer review system is overburdened as more scholars are running short on time to participate.

“Something has to change,” he said.

More research will be published via open access without peer review, according to Fritzsch, and readers will write comments that will be published in conjunction with the research.  The entire process will be made public in an open discussion forum, he said.

“It would be uniform, and it would make more sense,” Fritzsch said.

UI librarian Diaz said concerns about the role of libraries in a world of open access publishing aren’t necessary. Research libraries, such as the one at Iowa, are spending more money on journals today than budgets allow, he said.

Open access will allow libraries to curate free research and be more prudent in the journals they buy.“I think the future will be a hybrid,” he said.

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