Research can drive progress, but how far have we come in terms of making publications accessible?felixioncool,

Scientists embark on the strenuous journey of research to find solutions to the world’s most significant problems. Accessibility is arguably key to ensuring that science can fulfil its purpose. Only if science is widely consumed by a large audience can it play its remedial role. Consequently, gatekeeping does not find a place in the commandments of scientific research, and thus is born the idea of open-access journals.

The principle of open access aims to make research available without any financial or legal barriers so that everyone can engage with the results of science. At the heart of the open access movement lies a dream that everyone in the world can consume research without any discrimination. This dream dates back to 1836, when Anthony Panizzi, a librarian at the British Museum, put forth his ambitious vision in front of a parliamentary selection committee. Panizzi envisioned a world where every student may pursue their quest for knowledge and indulge their curiosity irrespective of their economic status. He realised a part of his dream through his work as the keeper of books in the British Museum and helped build a collection of half a million books at the museum. However, universal accessibility had still not been achieved by Panizzi as one had to physically be there at the museum to utilise their collection. The true open access movement gained traction in the 1990s and is associated with the beginning of the internet era. The proponents of the open access movement thought that the internet would help override these sentries – the traditional journals and their pricey subscriptions. But this hasn’t exactly been the case.

While it is true that research journals have largely moved to the digital space, the shift from paper to the screen has not affected subscription prices and paywalls. The internet has made the publishing, storing and sharing of articles easy and inexpensive. Yet, despite the ease with which research can be made accessible in today’s world, the popularity of subscription-based journals has not totally waned away. There has remained a constant debate, weighing the pros and cons of open access.

“Only academics from rich institutions can access published research”

Many scientists support the vision of universal accessibility and endorse a freer flow of research and its results. They have cited several advantages of the open-access model, a key benefit being the accessibility of invaluable scientific results to people even from low-income countries and poorer institutions that cannot afford the expensive subscriptions. Another important advantage, especially for the authors of the research papers, is the higher number of citations that can be achieved by publishing in open-access journals. Moreover, open-access journals usually have a quicker review process. Thus, the process of publication is speedy compared to traditional journals and this attracts many researchers.

Science is not an individualistic subject. Scientists are constantly building on the work of others – it is a collaborative effort where different people from different parts of the world contribute their expertise to create life-changing research. The traditional model of research gatekeeping slows down this process of innovation as only researchers from developed countries and/or well-funded institutions can gain access to previously published research. Since scientific research plays a vital role in influencing policy decisions on crucial matters like healthcare and the environment, restricting access to research in different countries can theoretically limit their development. Hence, the principle of open access plays a key role in the progress not only of science from an academic perspective but also in people’s everyday lives.

The naysayers, however, have not hopped onto the open-access bandwagon. While some have gone the extra mile citing that the open access movement is akin to the robbery of intellectual property, the final debate boils down to two disadvantages. The greatest disadvantages involve a high financial burden on the authors and a compromise on the quality of research articles. Traditional journals are considered to be pickier and enforce a higher degree of scrutiny while choosing their articles. However, since the open-access model is based on the “you pay, I publish” model, many scientists are worried that it could bring down the quality of published research. But this claim can be easily refuted by referring to the thorough peer-review process that is central to open-access journals, just as it is in traditional journals. Moreover, the quality of peer-review and standards of publishing remains the same irrespective of the business model adopted. Hence, choosing an open-access model will not influence the quality of a journal in any way.

“If science has to live up to its reputation as a problem-solver, the results of the research must be freely available”

The high cost of publishing in open-access journals is a pressing issue that needs to be solved to improve the publishing process. Since open-access journals do not charge money from their readers, they ask the authors for a fee known as the article processing charge (APC). APCs are significantly higher than the cost incurred by publishing in a traditional journal. The high cost is often a barrier if the author does not have enough funds to publish their research. In a way, this is a sort of reverse discrimination – again, only the authors from well-funded institutions can afford the fees. To combat this problem, various levels of open access have been invented. The golden route, for instance, is a “full” open-access journal, while some journals prefer to follow the hybrid route where some articles may be open access while others are not. However, this hybrid model does not solve the problem of accessibility. Even authors who can afford the APC may want to save money and choose to publish in traditional journals, especially if they aren’t concerned about the reach of an article.


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If science has to live up to its reputation as a problem-solver, the results of the research must be freely available. The current idea of open access is based on the “greater good” but does not entirely consider the researcher’s point of view. There is a need to develop more sustainable solutions, with a well thought out set of rules that cater to the vision of universal accessibility while protecting researchers from unreasonable financial burdens; perhaps affluent institutions can sponsor the work of their researchers, or funds can be raised for scenarios where the author cannot afford the cost of the APC. The constructive way forward is to “remodel” the current model without losing sight of our primary goal – universal accessibility.