News, Science & Research

University open access policy remains elusive despite national movement

U. researchers slowly embrace open access, express hesitancy over business model

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

According to the University mission statement, Brown strives to “serve the community, the nation and the world by discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge.” But as Andrew Creamer, the University Library’s scientific data management specialist, pointed out, the University has yet to support a policy encouraging open access to the public to the research conducted by faculty members, limiting the communication of knowledge created at Brown.

In recent years, researchers, citizens and aspiring scientists across the nation have increasingly called for open access to scientific papers, journals and data. A number of prominent cases, such as programmer and open access activist Aaron Swartz’ 2013 suicide and the creation of Sci-Hub , an online repository of pirated scientific papers, have put the campaign for public information in the national spotlight.

Open access has a number of advantages: It makes scientific research accessible to those that cannot afford it, especially people in low-resource countries, has been shown to increase citations for papers and lowers the barrier to entry for startups.

However, questions have arisen over the funding model and reputation of open access journals. These journals typically force the author — rather than the consumer or library — to pay for publication, putting an occasionally heavy burden on the author. Additionally, many new journals simply seek to extract money from researchers and are willing to publish anything that an author pays for.

Though open access has become more popular in recent years, researchers have been slow to adapt. Young researchers seeking to establish themselves in a field often aspire to publish in journals with the best reputations, which are often paywalled, said Hope Lappen, a University biomedical and life sciences librarian. If the system of journal publishing were to shift toward open access, tenure and promotion systems would have to change as well, she added.

Open access at Brown

The debate over open access has come to campus. In 2011, the faculty senate debated instituting an open access policy, which would encourage publication in open access journals.

The senate ultimately voted against it, citing fears of agitating relationships with publishers and a suspicion of the peer-review systems of these journals.    

While Brown has not instituted an open access policy, a number of other universities have. Brown and Yale are the only Ivy League universities with no such policies in place. Harvard, Penn, Dartmouth, Cornell and Princeton all officially support open access and have enacted university-wide policies encouraging or even enforcing it. Columbia has instituted policies in a limited number of its schools.

The University also has dealt with the rising costs of journals. From 1994 to 2014, the University more than tripled its expenditures on journals, from $2.2 million to $6.7 million, according to a library budget analysis. The analysis partially blamed the bundling of journals, rather than their individual sale, for increased costs. This cost has outpaced inflation significantly; from 1986 to 2013, the consumer price index — a standard measure of inflation — rose 113 percent while the cost of serials increased 495 percent.

Though open access theoretically reduces the cost for libraries, the University pays twice for institutional acces for some open access journals, with charges being placed on the author for publication as well as the library for subscription; the journals may be free to individuals, but only after institutions pay for access, Creamer said.

For Marjo Beltoja ’18, a coordinator of the Physics Departmental Undergraduate Group, these expenses have been worth it. They helped him access content for physics DUG meetings as well as for his personal use, while friends at community colleges and in high school have not had such opportunities.

Even though no open access policy is in place, the University provides a number of resources to researchers who wish to make their work widely available. Brown operates a publicly available database, Researchers@Brown, where faculty members can post their work and other relevant information about themselves. The site gives open access to University research that may be behind a paywall elsewhere, but it has only been used by a limited number of faculty, Creamer said. For example, a search on the website reveals that President Christina Paxson P’19 does not have a profile on the site but individually uploaded her work.

University librarians such as Lappen help authors negotiate and understand their grant and publishing agreements to enable them to publish their work in either open access journals or on their personal websites. While a variety of legal issues can arise when publishing, many authors do not face pushback from publishers, Lappen said.

Creamer helps researchers make the data underlying their research freely available as well. He promotes the use of the Brown Data Repository, a place where University researchers can upload their data sets and make them available to the public. The repository has gained traction among University researchers and enables other researchers to take a deeper look at the data supporting research papers, Creamer said.

Impact of national policies

Despite failure to implement a University-wide policy, many fields have embraced open access to varying degrees. In the biology department, researchers have been forced to make much of their work open access.

In 2008, the National Institutes of Health created an open access policy, stipulating that the manuscripts of scientific papers with research funded by the agency must be made publicly available 12 months after publication. These papers are published on PubMed Central, a database that is available to the general public. As a main source of funding in the field, this move by the NIH has greatly impacted researchers, said Edward Hawrot, professor of medical science and associate dean of biology.

Though biologists, including Hawrot, continue to publish their research in paywalled academic journals for their prestige, the work becomes available to everyone and grants access to those previously unable to pay for the work, Hawrot added. In particular, Hawrot said researchers at institutions unable to pay for journal subscriptions, particularly those in developing countries, have benefitted significantly.

But Erika Denour ’18, a leader of the biology DUG, had difficulty accessing several articles that were published in the last 12 months while writing a research proposal on Medicaid participation in dentistry. “Not being able to access those research articles didn’t impact me being able to write my proposal, but … what if I were a government official at the Rhode Island Department of Health and I couldn’t access these articles? Those people … wouldn’t have access. That’s kind of scary.”

In the engineering department, researchers have embraced open access much more slowly than those in biology. Each engineering discipline has its own publishing “culture,” but in general, there has been a shift toward open access, said Dean of Engineering Lawrence Larson.

In 2015, the National Science Foundation — the main source of funding for the engineering department’s research — implemented a policy mandating that all research that receives funding must be publicly posted and available for download a year after publication, similar to the NIH policy. But this policy is only applicable to research grants awarded after Jan. 25, 2016. Due to the slow nature of the grant approval process and scientific research itself, this stipulation has yet to have a strong impact on researchers, Larson said.

But this model is a good compromise, Beltoja said, adding that it benefits authors during the 12-month period as well as those normally unable to access content.

Alternate models of open access

In the fields of physics and mathematics, researchers are particularly strong proponents of making their work available; many in these fields utilize a resource named arXiv, a free online repository for pre-print publications based out of Cornell. While authors are not charged to upload to this database and readers are not charged for access, there is no system of peer review in place, leaving no way to verify a paper’s accuracy. However, papers with errors are typically spotted and removed by the author, said Leon Cooper, professor of science and director of the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems.

ArXiv has become ingrained in the research culture in mathematics, though researchers still publish in paywalled journals, said Brendan Hassett, professor of mathematics and director of the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics. At this point, authors publish in paywalled journals for the status associated with doing so, he added. If a journal were to prevent authors from posting their work on arXiv, it would face significant backlash.

In the field of physics, the use of arXiv is pervasive as well, as it was originally created for physicists, Hassett said. Similar to the field of mathematics, researchers publish their work both in arXiv and in paywalled journals, mainly for their status.

“If it were up to me, I would put everything in the arXiv, but I have a lot of younger colleagues and it means a lot to them to get published,” Cooper said.

In electrical engineering, a model known as “gold open access” is becoming increasingly common, Larson said. In this funding model, the author bears the cost of publication, but the research is available to everyone. Completely free open access journals have yet to really take off in the field, partially because no one has figured out the business model, he added.

Professor of Engineering Alexander Zaslavsky described a slow embrace of open access as well. Zaslavsky is an editor for Solid State Electronics, a paywalled journal run by Elsevier, a major publishing company. He described the cost of open access publication for authors as “especially grim” in countries such as India or China, where institutions or grants may not cover the cost of open access publication.

Looking ahead

Across the board, researchers at Brown believe in promoting the availability of research in some form. But there is no perfect model for publication yet, Larson said.

Larson envisions a system in which research papers could be uploaded to a database and then voted on for approval. The voting would act as a form of peer review, weeding out papers with issues and errors. While theoretical, this system could potentially help reduce some of the costs associated with journals, Larson added.

Lappen instead focused on solutions that the University could act upon. In order to make publishing easier for researchers — who occasionally feel burdened by the need to comply with both federal and University policies — Lappen would like to see a central repository developed in which researchers could upload their peer-reviewed manuscripts to be accessed by both the funding agency and the University, eliminating some of the bureaucracy surrounding publication.

Lappen would also like to see a centralization of University reports on research outputs; currently, there is no single, publicly available report that describes how much research is being done at Brown — a necessary precursor to any open access policy.

While open access has gained support both locally and nationally, Zaslavsky described the one true limitation to complete open access: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody, somewhere must pay.”