Is open access to research results in line with the rest of the world?

The seeming conflict between academic freedom and open access to research articles is worrying. Or at least according to an opinion piece in Svd. But is this really the case?

Many Swedish research funding bodiesalready require research findings to be made available to the public today and not just in the form of publication in scientific periodicals that are behind a pay wall. There are also recommendations from the EU that member states should be able to provide open access to research results and data. A tightening is now coming into force via the so-called Plan S that is to be the standard from the year 2020. Many Swedish public research funding bodies have already signed up to this. That any research that has been paid for out of tax revenues should also be made available to taxpayers is one line of thinking, another is that research that is freely distributed can help additional research that is based on available findings.

That publishers charge for publishing articles today (including owning copyright) and also charge for being able to read them is and always has been strange. This in itself can appear odd in that researchers that have done the work themselves then have to pay a subscription to be able to read their own results. In the latter scenario, the researcher pays a fee for an article to be made available to everyone via an open publication process. Digitalisation has opened up opportunities for digital publication, that is to say, a publisher is no longer needed to publish periodicals.

Naturally, open access is the way forward, in a researcher community without borders, but it is a case of thinking pragmatically and not simply in terms of principle – not least from the perspective of the individual researcher. What happens in the case of privately funded research and what is the difference between the two? How does this affect the individual researcher and the merit that follow from publication in a highly esteemed periodical and future allocation of funds from the respective university? Today, openness clashes with meritoriousness, and in terms of peer review. It is easy to open a digital periodical and many researchers have already been persuaded to submit research findings where peer review is, in principle, totally absent.

There are highly ranked periodicals in many research areas where it is necessary to publish for reasons of both tradition and merit. Appearing in corresponding open access channels is unlikely to happen overnight. Traditions within the science fields are often varied which makes the rapid timetable for OpenS somewhat worrying. To regulate in exactly which periodicals a researcher may publish infringes on academic freedom. The assessment one makes as an individual researcher when new findings are to be presented, is based on a number of criteria. Sometimes, the most important thing is that other researchers in the same field can access the findings via publication in periodicals everyone reads. In other cases, the current merit system is what drives publication in highly ranked publications such as Nature and Science, even though, one knows that colleagues will perhaps not read these in the first instance.

The publishing strategy ought to be changed and gradually, open access will mean that more research findings will become generally available. But perhaps this will not proceed as quickly as is thought outside the research community. What will the rest of the world do? It can be somewhat odd if we in Europe now have a very rapid timetable for Open Access while the rest of the world has a different schedule. Ultimately, research findings are international, and as such, the ways of making them available also need to be global.

I have a certain sympathy for the logic that tax funded research should be made available to everyone (worldwide?). But on the other hand, I fail to see the logic of fee paying education, why is this, which is also tax funded, not freely available to everyone?