Science looking for an opening

By Myreille Larouche

Source Image : Brandi Redd - Unsplash

The current pandemic brings to light many aspects of the movement for open science, which aims to make scientific research accessible for everyone interested – scientists and others. Researchers from all fields are collaborating internationally at an unprecedented level. This is particularly true for knowledge dissemination: publishers decided to give open access to all COVID-19 articles for the duration of the crisis. The pandemic thereby has driven a transformation that was already well on its way. Where do we stand now with regards to open access publication?

A game of Oligopoly

In the world of research, scientists are mainly funded by a governmental salary or project grants to conduct their experiments. When a project leads to a meaningful discovery, it is translated into a manuscript, which is peer-reviewed and subsequently published in a scientific journal.

The system in place to share scientific results is controlled by a subset of publishers that form an oligopoly. From 2006 to 2013, the top 5 biggest publishers (Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, SpringerNature and Sage) accounted for more than 50% of all published papers, a proportion that is consistently increasing since the advent of the digital era in the mid-1990s. Moreover, huge benefits are generated from these publications. Publishers do not pay for the content produced by academic scientists, nor do they pay the reviewers. Finally, they charge very high subscription fees to research institutions for access to these same publications. For example, Université de Montréal paid over $380,000 for a subscription to 137 SpringerNature journals in 2019 only. Universities and other institutions pay millions of dollars annually to get access to scientific articles.

This business model leads to profit margins of 30 to 40% for the dominant publishers, numbers that can make successful multinational companies envious. Is it paradoxical for teaching and research institutions to pay for access to results generated on their campuses and funded by public money? Many think so, and advocate to completely open access to scientific publications.

Taking things into your own hands

There are limited paths for researchers who want to achieve open access for their publications. Gold open access gives free access to articles on journals’ websites. Authors choosing this option have to pay US$100 to US$5,000 as “article-processing charges” for their article to be available in open access. In contrast, green open access involves publishing in any scientific journal while depositing a copy of the article in an online archive (like or a publicly-available institutional repository (like Papyrus for the Université de Montréal). However, an embargo period might be requested by the publisher.

Nevertheless, recent studies show that only up to 50% of published articles are available in open access. Both gold and green practices put financial and logistical requirements on researchers’ shoulders. Data rather suggest that creating infrastructures and offering incentives is much more effective in pushing researchers to follow a path to open access.

Taking down the walls of the scientific fortress

Different policies adopted in the recent years confirm that progress is being made. In 2008, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) was the first of the three federal research agencies to adopt an open access policy in Canada. The policy states that grant recipients have to make any journal publication arising from CIHR-funded work freely accessible within 12 months of publication. The other two federal research agencies adopted the policy in 2015. Since 2019, the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ), the provincial funding agency, applied a similar policy to its grantees. However, federal and provincial agencies do not closely monitor compliance to these policies.

Of the work funded by the federal agencies, the CIHR-supported one is the most accessible, but with only 55% open access articles. This is a significantly lower rate than the 92% observed for work funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). What can explain such a difference? First, the NIH states that it can withdraw payment of grants if the policy is not respected by the grantees. Second, it provides a convenient online repository, PubMedCentral, in which researchers can easily deposit their articles. This combination of strong incentives and functional infrastructures seems to favour researchers’ compliance to the funders’ open access policies. By adopting strict monitoring policies, the funding agencies can efficiently promote open access publications.

To guide the funders’ mandates, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is currently conducting an international consultation to develop an official recommendation on open science, which encompasses open access. The recommendation, expected for 2021, will define shared principles for the implementation of public infrastructures of diffusion and of open science incentives. Essentially, UNESCO aims to set standards that will guide decision makers as they strive to open science.

To renew the contract between science and society, and to face upcoming global challenges such as global warming, research results will have to be disseminated more efficiently. Concerted actions from universities, funding agencies and researchers can lead to robust models of open access publishing. Even if the current system is deeply anchored, a cultural change has been triggered—to the benefit of science, and to those who do it.

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