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Sharing scientific knowledge creates a lasting legacy    Sep 28, 2018

Sharing scientific knowledge creates a lasting legacy
Sep 28, 2018

Today it’s the “International Day for Universal Access to Information”, a day to remind us all that the right to information is an integral part for the well-being of each individual and a fundamental cornerstone for societies to be inclusive and function democratically. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in the world of science, as a lot of scientific knowledge is still hidden behind the veil of journal paywalls. To counter this the “open access” movement has risen. But what is open access and why isn’t it yet the golden standard? With these questions, we went to Pieter Lernout, the head librarian of UHasselt, who deals with making knowledge available on a daily basis.


“Information wants to be free.” – Stewart Brand.

Open access is defined as the immediate, online free availability of research outputs. The rationale behind the open access movement is the fair principle that research that is funded by public means should be freely available to the public. The whole mechanism behind the publication of scientific research is an odd one to explain to an outsider.

Firstly, the scholars and scientists who carry out the research are in most cases funded by the public sector. Secondly, when they submit their article, it is reviewed by another scientist, who is also paid by the public sector. A process called peer-review. And thirdly, to top it off, when the articles are published they are locked behind the publisher’s paywall and need to be purchased by publically-funded libraries and institutes or scientists themselves. A bonus feature is that in some cases the authors have to pay the publisher a fee to handle and publish the paper using, you guessed it right, money from publically-funded grants. 

“All the money that vanishes into this process cannot go to actual research and to make things worse the subscription and processing fees that the publishers ask are often outrageous. As a result, scientific knowledge is locked up behind a huge and undemocratic paywall and as long as the research publishing system doesn’t change drastically, we are forced to make the best out of it."

For the bigger journal packages, databases and e-books, Hasselt University tries to overcome this problem by working together in consortia with other universities. But this isn’t a solution for individual subscriptions that need to be bought separately by each university. "This is very difficult for smaller universities like UHasselt as the cost per download would be way too high, leaving many niche research branches at these universities without access to specific journals. This is not a fair game and poor democratizing of scientific knowledge. Publicly funded research should belong to all of us; knowledge should be disseminated as widely as possible.”


The advantages of open access are quite obvious. “Because open access publications are freely accessible to everyone, also to readers and institutions with limited financial means, they are more widely circulated and cited. As such, open access articles benefit from higher visibility and impact.”

There are currently two different roads to open access in the academic world: the green and golden road. The green road is when researchers publish their article in the journal of their choosing and afterwards deposit an open access version of their work (a post review preprint or the author version) in a repository, a digital archive that gathers research output from an institution or a (collection of) scientific discipline(s). After a certain embargo time, determined by the publisher, the article is made publically available.

“This green road, or the self-archiving road, is the open access vision that is supported by Hasselt University and all the other Flemish universities. Important to note in this context is a brand new Belgian law, published in the Belgian monitor on September 5 2018, that stipulates that the author of a scientific article is always allowed to publish his author version in open access no later than 6 months after its publication date (12 months for articles in the humanities), regardless of which license was signed.”

With the golden road, articles are immediately open access after publishing. Costs that come with the publishing process are no longer directed towards the end users, a.k.a. the readers. There has been a lot of experiment to find a good business model for this road. The best known one is where publishers charge the authors a fixed fee, an article processing charge (APC), to cover all editorial costs.

“However, gold open access comes in two different tastes: some journals are fully open access and all authors have to pay an APC to publish in them, while others - we call them hybrid journals – hold on to a more traditional road, requiring subscription fees but allowing authors to pay an additional APC to make their individual article freely accessible. The problem is that in this scenario universities pay double: the subscription fee as well as an APC. This is known as ‘double dipping’, which should be avoided at all costs.”


There are already several initiatives going on to advance towards open access. The biggest one, which was recently announced and is spearheaded by Science Europe, is ‘Plan S’. Its goal is to force European researchers that are publically funded to publish in open access journals or on open access platforms from 2020 onwards, while simultaneously excluding the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing.

“Plan S  is without any doubt a great initiative that is already backed by a dozen powerful, national funding agencies. However, at this stage, there are also still some attention points. First of all, there is a concern amongst libraries that as a result of Plan S even more money will go the publishers. On the one hand, the plan will lead to an increase of gold open access publications and as such to an increase of the publication costs through APCs. On the other hand, the subscription costs will not (or at least not immediately) disappear or significantly decrease. Don't forget that Plan S only aims to cover European research and that research originating from other parts of the world will mainly stay behind a paywall. Will we be able to pay all these extra APCs on top of the subscription fees?"

"A second concern is that the plan does not support hybrid journals, which is excellent, but by forcing researchers to publish in fully open access journals one limits the free choice of journal for researchers. This is a problem because research funding institutes currently still evaluate researchers based on the impact of their research publications. And also the financing model is following the same logic. In other words: in order to give Plan S all the chances it deserves, the evaluation and financing system of research will need to be revised.”

Another illegal initiative is Sci-Hub, the online platform created by Alexandra Elbakyan, which gives you access to millions of academic papers with the click of a button but which name is only whispered in the hallways of universities and research institutes. “Sci-Hub is the result of a polarized world. The publishers reap what they sow. People do not see another way to gain access to scientific knowledge and do not feel guilty because of the ridiculous fees. However, there are always other – legal – ways, like asking the authors of the papers, via colleagues at other universities or through interlibrary loan.”


“Can we only blame the publishers? I don’t believe so. Being too greedy isn't ethical and is certainly not in the benefit of science, but they are commercial companies and it is simply part of their business model. We should rather look at those who can impose actual change, the government and research funders. It are these entities that can change the evaluation process and the publication habit of researchers, opening up the way to a different publication environment. We need to change the total circle and we need to do it on a worldwide scale. If we can’t do this it will certainly fail. However, I truly believe it is possible. If we work together we can achieve this and in the end make knowledge available to everyone.”

More information on open access and open access in Belgium can be found on our offical library website as well as on the Belgian Open Access website.