Editorial: Open access is here to stay

Published in The Hindu on July 20, 2011

A recent announcement by three major biomedical funding agencies has given a booster dose to the open access (OA) model that provides free access to scientific literature. A freely accessible online journal, which will rival top-tier subscription-based journals like Nature , will be launched next summer by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society. This news comes close on the heels of the Nature Publishing Group’s launch of a fully open access journal — Scientific Reports , a direct competitor to the well established PLOS ONE journal. In April 2010, the Group launched Nature Communications , an online-only, partly OA journal which published 300 papers in the first year of its existence and plans to publish more than 400 articles this calendar year. Importantly, authors can, for a fee, choose to make their papers freely accessible in more than 25 traditional subscription journals published by NPG, including all 15 journals owned by it. But why should the top-notch scientific publishing house take open access so seriously? The commendable 2008 mandate of the U.S. National Institutes of Health that all papers arising from research carried out using its fund should be made freely available could be one factor. But the most important driver has been the steady growth of the revolutionary model.

According to a paper published recently in PLOS ONE journal , since 2000, the number of open access journals has risen by 18 per cent a year and the number of freely accessible articles by 30 per cent. Contrast this with the meagre 3.5 per cent increase in the volume of journal publishing. In 2009 alone, 4,769 journals carried an estimated 191,000 OA articles, constituting 7.7 per cent of all peer-reviewed journal papers. Hence the authors’ observation that the new model has “shifted the landscape of scientific publishing considerably” within a short span of time is clearly no exaggeration. That the period 2005-09 witnessed such a healthy growth in OA publishing settles the much-debated issue of the model’s sustainability. It validates the money authors are required to pay towards publication. In fact, the author-charge concept has found wider acceptance, with many reputed subscription journals collecting a separate fee from authors for opening up their papers. But the biggest contribution to the sustainability of dedicated OA journals has come from the funding agencies — their exemplary willingness to include publishing costs in the research budget.