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Spotify for research – a possible path towards more open science?

Open science is extremely important – not just for the democratisation of research, but also for the quality, progress and, not least, cost-effectiveness of publications.

The term ‘open science’ refers partly to open access to scientific publications and partly to open access to research data. Both aspects have their specific challenges to consider and are currently being debated in many parts of the sector, both nationally and internationally. The Swedish government has commissioned the National Library of Sweden to develop national guidelines for open science by 1 January 2024. Recently, a two-day conference was held on the theme under the title Open Science from policy to practice in which KTH was involved.

When it comes to scientific publications, there are financial gains that publishing firms now risk losing out on if the research community can build new, innovative digital solutions for scientific publication. The conventional model is that the universities pay for the research to be conducted, then the researchers help quality assure articles submitted for assessment (often without being paid) and then the same researchers have to pay to read the articles once they have been published.

The publishing industry is therefore protecting its business models and is naturally reluctant to change. In the past, the universities have paid to access and read the articles, while nowadays open access to the material is often guaranteed through paying for publication instead. Or in fact, both models still exist, some publications are still closed behind subscription services and others are open by means of publication fees. In practice, there are many variations on how the articles are made available with combinations of open and closed access and different types of fees. The models have names like diamond, green, gold or hybrid.

Whatever the solution, all the attempts to maintain the conventional, costly model for scientific publication are contrary to the concept of open science, and significant sums are being transferred from research to publishing firms. The publishers’ business models are therefore clear obstacles to open science. In an ideal world, a ‘Spotify revolution’ would take place where the powerful position of the publishing firms is broken, or at least fundamentally changed, and where the research community steps forward and, within the framework of digital solutions, makes research openly available – without compromising on quality and without the publishing firms acting as costly intermediaries.

This is not without its challenges. The quality control that the publishing firms are currently responsible for, the strong ‘brands’ of individual titles and the importance that universities attach to publication data and the impact values of the journals in all kinds of assessment must in that case be managed differently. There are also people who vigorously defend the publication model, and who are prepared to fight for it, while at the same time community-driven publication models are being developed where the researchers themselves are in control of the journals.

We are clearly somewhere in the middle of a transition to open access and we must stand firm so that we do not go back to costly models, where the only change is in the method of charging high fees from subscription to publication. The transition is being driven at both national and European level by research funders and political decision-makers, although we still lack a clear disruptor capable of fundamentally changing the conditions.