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Opening Up Science

Open access resources and a peer review example for the future of science

Sherri Fraser, PhD

Sherri Fraser, PhD, is the creative services coordinator for Lab Manager. She can be reached at

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Open access is the concept that when a scientist publishes their research, the publication is freely available to anyone who wishes to read it, not just limited to those with institutional or subscription access to the journals. Once thought to be impossible, it has been evolving and is now being embraced by some of the largest funding agencies in the world, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What are the origins of open access? 

Discussions about open access were happening in the early 1990s, building on the concept of open-source computer code. The first real moves to open access publications were the creation of digital archives. These archives encouraged scientists to upload their pre-publication manuscripts to in order to make them freely available to the general public. By the early 2000s, the blossoming of the internet provided the motivation to scientists to make their work public. 

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One of the first steps taken to make open access a reality was the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) in 2002. This joint declaration from scientists and humanities scholars called for the academic, funding, and publishing world to break down the barriers to open access. Their plan was to promote self-archiving followed by “a new generation of open-access journals.”

The ball started rolling from there and the BOAI was quickly followed by the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities in 2003.

Quality in scientific publishing

Many scientists feel that the current peer review process and publish-or-perish mechanism for promotion fails to guarantee quality. In fact, many will point out the inherent flaws in the traditional system and how it can actually entrench bad science:

  • Slow to publish delays progress
  • Publish-or-perish drives volume over quality
  • Reviewers being reluctant or too busy to truly engage in peer review
  • Small numbers of reviewers and editors as gatekeepers, instead of the research community as a whole is flawed and doesn’t prevent bad science making it to publication
  • Retractions are suicide, so bad science may be ignored
  • Negative results are never published, so scientists can end up repeating others’ work over and over, never realizing it’s been done before
  • Predatory journals exist to take advantage of all of the above 

Gold or green: Who pays?

As granting agencies start to require open access publication for works published with their funds, publishers are trying to respond. Recent announcements have come from both Springer Nature and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC, the publishers of Nature and Science. They have been working with Plan S from cOAlition S, a group of funding agencies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust working toward full open access in scientific publishing, to ensure that scientists wanting to publish in prestigious journals can still meet the open access requirements of their granting agencies.

Publishers are often seen as the villain in this story, but someone has to pay for the system of publication. Recognizing that change in the wind, many publishing companies are jumping on board with their own flavors of open access. The two standards most discussed are gold and green open access. 

Gold Open Access

Gold open access is a model where the scientist, their institution, or granting agency pays the journal to open up the access without gating the content behind a paywall. Article (or author) processing charges (APCs) are another name for these publication fees. Many granting agencies have formal policies in place to help with these fees. However, these fees can be prohibitive to many scientists.

Green Open Access

Green open access, sometimes called author-initiated sharing, can be done in a few different ways. The first one is a bit of a work-around, where the scientist is free to add their work to an online archive in a pre-publication format, but the final, reviewed published work stays locked behind the paywall. An alternative is that the work can be released to the public after an embargo period, but that means cutting-edge publications are still off-limits to most people.

Many publishers are also committing to publish transformative journals as a way to transition to complete open access. In some of these agreements, the journals see funds that used to be paid for subscriptions being used to pay for open access services. Plan S requires these journals to shift to complete open access over the course of the agreement.

Licenses, open access, and fair use 

Creative Commons Licenses

Anyone who writes for a living has to understand where their words are placed and what other people are allowed to do with those words. With open access, creative licenses are quickly replacing simple copyright. These creative commons (CC) licenses range from noncommercial, no derivative work, with credit to the creator (CC BY-NC-ND), to the most permissive, CC BY, where users are allowed to do whatever they wish to the content as long as the creator is given credit. Creators that completely give up their rights to their work, allowing it to be entirely public, use the dedication CC zero (CC0).

Fair use is another term often heard in the realm of licenses and use of creative works. Fair use is the term used to describe works that take copyrighted material and transform it for limited purposes, such as criticism or parodies. In the case of scientific publications, the journal that holds the copyright may allow the creator fair use of their work to create future works (e.g., a book), to self-archive, or to reproduce the work for their own purposes (but not for sale).  This is not open access. 

A peer review example in an open access world

Even though scientists are intellectually behind the concept of open access, the implementation has been slow. Because universities and granting agencies still look at impact factors in their hiring and promotion matrices, scientists don’t feel able to step outside of the traditional publication methods for fear of losing the chance at grants, jobs, and promotions. 

Young scientists are increasingly frustrated by the academic world. Competition is fierce for positions and grants, and heavily weighted in favor of already established researchers. When asked how things should look differently in an open access world, some young scientists suggest these changes:

  • All scientific manuscripts should be uploaded to digital repositories
  • Allow the research community as a whole (the peers) to review the work as soon as it is published
  • Let scientific discussions be seen by the public
  • Change hiring, funding, and promotions to value online publications: make judgements on a candidate’s quality based on peer-review engagement 

Open access resources:

  • Think, Check, Submit: use this resource to identify non-predatory journals or publishers
  • Sherpa Romeo: use this resource to search open access policies by publishers
  • DOAJ: use this resource to find OA journals
  • OASPA: an international non-profit coalition of publishing organizations, scholars, and supporting services actively engaging in open scholarship
  • ROARMAP: to find mandates and policies of funders and research institutes
  • SPARC: coalition of mostly academic and research libraries to promote OA
  • Sci-Hub: a pirate site to get around paywalls to access scientific publications
  • Creative Commons: a nonprofit organization that works with the legalities of open access
    • Creative Commons licenses: six different open access license types to answer the question of what a user can do with the work