Editorial: Open, Sesame

Published in The Hindu on November 3, 2012

If in 2004, Nucleic Acids Research made an overnight switch from being a subscription-based journal to an open access (OA) one, 10 years later high-energy physics as a field will make such a shift when nearly 90 per cent of papers published in a dozen journals will become freely accessible. The Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3) has negotiated a deal with journals and is now coordinating with countries and institutions that publish papers in high-energy physics to complete the transition. It is one of the most dramatic instances of institutions and publishers embracing the concept to allow the free dissemination of scientific literature. Open access has come a long way since the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) campaigned for free access in December 2001. Over the last decade, the relative share of OA has been steadily increasing by one per cent annually. So much so that about 12 per cent of scientific literature published last year was in open access journals; another five per cent of papers in subscription journals became freely available a year after publication, notes BMC Medicine.

Heightened public demand for access to more papers was demonstrated during an online signature campaign a few months ago — within a week, 17,000 people signed a petition urging U.S. President Barack Obama to make all papers arising from federal-funded research freely available. Currently, the National Institutes of Health is the only funding agency that demands free access to papers no later than a year after publication. Despite only 75 per cent compliance, about 90,000 of NIH-funded papers are deposited in an online archive every year. In the case of India, in 2009, nearly 16 per cent of papers by researchers based here were published in OA journals. This is more than the global average of 8.5-10 per cent. Yet, it is unfortunate that the country, which stands to gain tremendously from open access initiatives, has not fared well in facilitating it. It was only in late 2011 that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) “suggested” meeting the expenses towards OA publication. It is for agencies like the CSIR that BOAI recently sent out a message: “OA for publicly-funded research benefits taxpayers and increases the return on their investment in research.” Worse, not all laboratories have responded to CSIR’s mandate of setting up a repository for self-archiving even a year after the target date. Self-archiving incurs much less investment and all institutions need to quickly embrace it to make results freely available.