Why I support open access

While the controversy races on about the Nature piece about PLoS, see DrugMonkey, Bill and Coturnix, I thought I would throw my 2 cents in. Rather than piling on here (mainly cause I already did in DMs comments) I would like to offer my view on why open access is such an important movement.

Many years ago (seems like ages) my PhD lab was one of the first to start culturing adult trigeminal neurons in mass as a functional assay for nociceptor activity. This approach had several advantages. The key to any primary culture system with adult neurons is healthy neurons and getting healthy neurons is dependent on how fast you can get them out and into an environment where they can be happy again. Another key is to use as few animals as possible to get a reasonable density that will work with your assay. As it turned out, the little method that we utilized (we weren’t the first, we just did it more) was quite useful insofar as we could get very healthy neurons that behaved nicely in a number of assays from a very small number of animals, generally much fewer than if one was to use dorsal root ganglion neurons (which are very difficult to get from adults). Along the way in studying cannabinoid effects on these neurons I started a little side project that eventually turned into a manuscript that we decided to publish in an open access journal. This particular journal was new, at the time, and we were somewhat hesitant to publish there; however, we all thought that the idea of open access was a good one and we could tell that there was some inertia building (this was about the time of the Cell Press rangling with U California). We submitted and after some time and revisions the paper was accepted and published.

Soon after the paper came out I came to understand the importance of open access. I got an email from a young, female scientist in Nigeria. She had trained in Belgium and decided to go back to her home country to start up her own research lab. She emailed me because she wanted to use adult trigeminal neuron cultures to address her research aims and she had some questions about the details of our protocols. I sent her our complete protocols and troubleshooting guides and we continued to communicate a bit via email. All of this was occurring close to the time of the annual SFN meeting and she was going to attend (on an SFN scholarship) and we decided to meet up at the meeting. When we met, she informed me that she had found many other papers on the topic (trigeminal culture) but did not have access to the majority of them (as one might imagine). The primary reason she contacted me was because she had access to our paper (for free) and she could tell from the manuscript that we would be able to help her out. Mind you, all of this happened before PubMed Central really caught on (although it was functioning) so her access to the literature was likely quite limited. She further informed me that she felt that we had made the correct choice in publishing in an open access journal because in many cases it was the only way that people like her in developing countries could gain access to the scientific literature. She was not the only person to contact me about this paper from a developing country, I just had the most contact with her. I don’t know about you but I find this a compelling motivation to make my manuscripts open access.

Since that paper I have published many more papers, some of which are in open access journals. The ones that are not are all deposited in PubMed Central and are freely available (I don’t deserve an award, we are all supposed to do this) and/or we paid extra for open access at the publishing venue (think PNAS). One thing that I have done, and I think I have broken the rules here, is to check the box to release the papers to PubMed Central immediately. I know of at least 2 cases where the papers showed up there about 2 weeks after publication freely available for all. Technically this is a violation of the rules about time frame of release by the publishing houses (jumped the gun by 6 months). Frankly, I don’t care. What are they going to do, sue me? I’m sure that would go over well, sue the person that is providing your original material (unpaid) and reviewing your manuscripts (again unpaid). I am not advising anyone else to do this; however, I don’t see what they can do about it (while maintaining a reasonable reputation) and I can’t imagine why PubMed Central would give you the option to release immediately if they were overly concerned about it either.

In closing, I’d just like to say a few words about science in developing countries and open access. I hope that as scientists we can all recognize the important role that science and researchers can play in helping developing countries achieve their goals. Research is a powerful tool in the repertoire of education. Moreover, many developing countries have urgent research needs that don’t register on the radar of countries that have reached industrialized status. Even if institutions in developing countries receive discounted access to pay journals it is money spent that could be dedicated to other aspects of research or education. These researchers must have access to literature to succeed and they must also have as many research dollars as they can get their hands on. Open access can be a powerful tool in this fight. My personal opinion is that open access journals, and PubMed Central in particular, can and should be key aspects of how we can bring science, education and research to developing countries. Think about that when you’re putting off depositing your papers in PubMed Central or when you’re considering the appropriate venue for your next publication

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7 responses to “Why I support open access

  1. Terrific post! I’ve been so happy to see that PloS’s presence is forcing NIH and pay-journals to do what they should have done long ago–post manuscripts for free. Especially now that the print editions are totally obsolete, it’s crazy how much they cost. I liked your anecdote about the Nigerian researcher–way to bring it home.

  2. DrJ, I’d just point out that I’m not so sure that PLoS, or any other OA publishing house for that matter, has had much influence over NIH’s vision for PubMed Central. The mandates to get all NIH funded work into PMC quickly have been coming for many years now, they have just implemented gradually. I would argue that NIH (and Congress) recognized the importance of OA quite some time ago and that they have shepherded the whole movement quite effectively for a long time.

  3. jp,

    I love the personal anecdote on how OpenAccess helped this particular researcher.

    It’s too easy to forget that for a lot of scientists out there who could be doing really great work, the costs of journal subscriptions are an incredible burden.

    For me, there an aspect of OA that’s just an ease of use issue. Currently I’m doing a quick scan of the literature for the background of a paper I’m reviewing. And damn it, just being able to easily click to get the full text of any paper from the reference list of another would be so much less effort!

  4. And damn it, just being able to easily click to get the full text of any paper from the reference list of another would be so much less effort!

    This one is one of my favorites… why every journal under the sun doesn’t do this is beyond me!! When its there its great, when not it drives me bonkers.

    It’s too easy to forget that for a lot of scientists out there who could be doing really great work, the costs of journal subscriptions are an incredible burden.

    Yes, and how they ever got us to pay to access our own work is a giant mystery. As far as I’m concerned no one should stand for it anymore.

  5. Developing Country Researcher

    Great post jp,
    I am currently a postdoc at a prestigeous American university, but frankly speaking I was extremely lucky to get the position. I did my PhD work in one of the former communist countries in Europe, and let me tell you this: the problem of journal access is more widespread than commonly thought. In my home country I could do virtually no research of any real significance and novelty, because just formulating hypotheses was close to impossible when I had to wait days to weeks for the authors to send me (or not) their manuscripts by e-mail. I know people somehow managed in the old days, but if a scientist wants to be competitive nowadays, they must have instant access to the most recent literature. I know there is a huge potential in the developing countries and if only they could roam the scientific publication realm freely, they could really contribute, if not with huge publications in C/N/S journals (these require a lot of resources to get out) at least with insightful work in their subfields. Go OpenAccess!!!

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  7. First-class information indeed. I have been searching for this content.

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