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What is Open Access?

The goal of open access is to move countries toward becoming "knowledge societies" in which information, science, and communication are easy to come by and are highly valued.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

The "open access" idea and "open access" initiatives have become highly visible over the last couple of years -- in the media, among policy makers and at publisher and professional society board tables. What is "open access", and why should you care?

At the international policy level, open access refers to a global initiative to provide equitable access to technology and information -- to work to lessen the north-south, developed-developing, have-have not separation that threatens to keep much of the world from benefiting from or participating in 21st Century advances in science, technology and information. The goal of open access at this level is to move countries toward becoming "knowledge societies" in which information, science, and communication are easy to come by and are highly valued. This perspective formed the basis of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), as well as other governmental and intergovernmental (e.g., OECD; UNESCO) resolutions and agreements.

In the scientific publishing domain, "open access" refers to a more specific initiative - it is a short hand term for initiatives to make published scientific and technical literature freely available on the web. The impetus for this movement is varied - some is fueled by patient advocate groups who believe that federally funded biomedical research results should be available to the public rapidly and at no cost; some is fueled by a belief that such exchange will enhance scientific productivity and progress; some is fueled by a belief that scientific journal costs are too high. There are currently a little over 1,300 "quality controlled" (peer reviewed) open access journals, 22 of which are listed in Psychology (Directory of Open Access Journals). This number has been growing exponentially.

The "open access" issue has recently become even more intensely debated because NIH published a draft policy implementing an open access plan, and allowed 60 days for public comment. The draft policy would require NIH grantees to provide the agency with a copy of their research article when it was accepted for publication in a scientific journal. Six months later (or sooner if the journal allowed), the articles would be made publicly available on PubMed Central, NIH's free electronic repository of biomedical research literature.

Where does psychology and where does APA fit into the picture? One outcome of such a policy, which would likely expand to cover all federally funded research, not just that funded by NIH, would be to shift who bears the cost of scientific publishing away from publishers and subscribers to authors and funders. Many believe such a shift this would have a host of unintended consequences across science fields on the vitality and quality of science. One consequence would be a decrease in the number of journals, thus reducing the available number of high quality publication outlets. Another is a decrease in the resources available for the editorial and peer review infrastructure. Reducing the value added by the peer review and editorial processes would take away an important piece of the process that ensures rigorous and high quality science. In addition, shifting to an "author pays" model may undermine attempts to increase diversity in science if easier access to scientific publishing requires access to greater financial resources. At present only about a third of published articles in psychological journals report a source of funding. These concerns are articulated in APA's comments on the proposed policy (available here in PDF format).

APA joins other scientific associations in calling for a more collaborative partnership, involving publishers, authors and funders, to support the broad goals of the open access ideal -- making scientific information more broadly available, especially to the public. There are many ways that this might occur, capitalizing on the Internet and on authors' ability to post their own papers on their own web pages (APA's Publications and Communications board recently changed its policy to allow researchers to post the final pdf of their articles from APA journals on their own web page). But beyond that, APA calls for attention to more effective public access - through encouragement of abstracts for a lay audience, or development of digests that summarize research for the public..

APA will continue to monitor the open access policy as NIH responds to input received during the public comment period, and will work with others in the scientific publishing and science association communities to encourage a partnership that works to promote diverse and active science publication outlets as well as effective public dissemination.