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Open access to scientific articles

”Nothing short of a revolution”, said The Guardian’s science correspondent David Adam recently (October 6) in his article ”Scientists take on the publishers in an experiment to make research free to all”. A new publishing group called the Public Library of Science (PLoS) that will distribute its journals free of charge, as opposed to the major multinational publishing houses like Elsevier Science that package scientific findings into hundreds of specialist journals and sell them for thousands of pounds a year, Adams wrote. October 9 The Guardian published an article under ”opinion”, by biologist Michael Eisen, ”Publish and be praised” where he says:

The cheapest and most powerful way by far to distribute published scientific work is the internet. In online publication of research articles, all the costs intrinsic to publication are spent in producing the original peer-reviewed, edited and formatted copy of each work. With printing costs eliminated, and distribution infinitesimally cheap, the costs of publication are now independent of the number of readers.

Access charges are now a perverse and needless obstacle, Eisen claims:

It should be a public scandal that the results of publicly-funded scientific research are not available to members of the public who are interested in, or could benefit from, such access. Furthermore, many commercial publishers have exploited the effective monopoly they are given on the distribution rights to individual works and charge absurdly high rates for some of their titles, forcing libraries with limited budgets to cancel journal subscriptions and deny their researchers access to potentially critical information. The system is obsolete and broken and needs to change.

Yesterday, on October 13, Guardian featured a leader article, ”Publishing progress”, saying that a characteristic of knowledge is that one person’s use of it does not lessen another’s:

Backed by Nobel prize winners and a respected US charity, ”open access” aims to overturn three centuries of publishing tradition. This alternative has arrived just in time – as even well-financed university libraries are finding it difficult to stock the full range of scientific journals, thanks to annual subscriptions which now carry a price tag of as much as ¬£15,000. But for the new publishing model to work, two things have to change: one is to do with mindset; the other with money. First, scientists must start using the online journals rather than established outlets for important new bits of research. Second, the way of funding the process of peer review, which ensures scientists can trust what they read, must be redesigned. One course of action, advocated by the Public Library of Science, is for the peer review to be financed by scientists’ institutions. This makes sense as they would be only using money that would otherwise have paid for subscriptions. The promise of such new models cannot be underestimated.

The debate in The Guardian also includes a few letters to the editor.


Here are a few other links of interest regarding open access to scientific articles:

The Directory of Open Access Journals. This service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals, covering all subjects and languages. There are today 542 journals in the directory.

EPrints.org is ”dedicated to opening access to the refereed research literature online through author/institution self-archiving.”

CogPrints is an electronic archive for self-archive papers in any area of Psychology, neuroscience, and Linguistics, and many areas of Computer Science, Philosophy, Biology, Medicine, Anthropology, as well as other portions of sciences pertinent to the study of cognition.

The Free Medical Journals Site tries to promote the free availability of full text medical journals on the Internet.


Stevan Harnad is Professor of Cognitive Science in the Department of Electronics and Computer Science, Multimedia Research Group at the University of Southampton and a very active evangelist for open access. An overview of Harnad’s articles on this topic can be found at http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/intpub.html. Especially these are interesting:

On-Line Journals and Financial Fire-Walls”, Nature 395: 127-128. September 10 1998.

E-Knowledge: Freeing the Refereed Journal Corpus Online”, Computer Law & Security Report 16(2) 78-87 (2000).

Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought”, Interdisciplines (2003).

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