OpenAccess: A Young Scientist’s View

Even though I wanted this blog to be mainly about science, I had some discussions about (science) politics in the last days on Twitter and Facebook. So I decided to share some of my thoughts and hope that the discussion will continue here.

I am working as an independent young chemists in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. In Germany, the states are responsible for the universities and Baden-Württemberg is currently planning a new university law. There are many points in the current proposal that are worth being criticized by scientists. I will not go into details here, that would be another post and I am not an expert on many of these aspects. However, instead of discussing these big issues, lots of criticism is focussed on one small provision concerning OpenAccess publication. Examples can be found in the newspaper FAZ [1] and in an article in the newspaper of the Hochschulverband – the largest association of German professors [2].

What is all the fuzz about? The way science works is that I do stuff (science) and when I have found something more or less interesting I write an article about it and send it to a scientific journal. The editor there send it to colleagues, who read it carefully (most of the time) and write some feedback to help the editor decide whether my article should be published in this journal. If the feedback is positive, the article is edited, formatted and published online. However, before publication I have to sign a form in which I hand over more or less all rights on my article to the publisher of the journal. Usually this happens already when submitting the article – meaning without signing such a copyright transfer agreement nobody will ever look at or read my work.

Once my article is published online, you can only download it if you subscribed to this journal. These subscriptions are usually bought by the universities (for a lot of money). Depending on the terms in the copyright agreement, I am usually not allowed to make my article available in any other way, for example by posting it on my website. So if I do not like the terms, I could pick another publisher. However, the choice of journal is determined by many other considerations (readership of the journal, topic of the article, and – unfortunately – also the journal’s impact factor). This would be a topic for another blog post. Often, there is not much choice for a given article – in particular for young scientists that have to “play by the rules”. Finally, while there are slight differences, the copyright agreements of different publishers are in general very similar.

The government of Baden-Württemberg now wants to make it mandatory for scientists funded by the state that when publishing their results in a scientific journal, they maintain the right to post their article on their own websites or in university repositories six months after the journal publication. To me, this sound like a good thing. More colleagues will be able to download and read my articles, even of their universities do not have the money to subscribe to the journal in question. Hopefully, these additional readers will cite my article, which boosts my ego and is also good for my career. The more political argument for such a law is that if my research has been funded by the taxpayers’ money, also the results produced with this money should be available to the public.

Sound all reasonable, right? So why is this policy criticized at all? The main argument I read is that it undermines the “freedom of science”. In fact, this is partly true: As a scientist, I cannot choose any journal anymore, but only those that agree to the terms dictated by the state of Baden-Württemberg. However, I think that this is a necessary step to give back scientist the freedom to make their work freely available.

In the end, publishers rely on scientist that write articles for their journals. If enough scientists demand a change of their copyright agreements, they will change their policy. But on my own, I have no power to demand such a change. I have to publish in the most suitable journals no matter whether I like their policy or not – otherwise I would damage my career. Therefore, a critical mass has to be reached somehow. This could be a coordinated effort by scientists – for instance, though their scientific societies. But these societies usually publish journals themselves and depend on the revues from subscription fees.

This leaves those that fund science in the position to put pressure on publishers – and this is what Baden-Württemberg is trying to do now. In fact, it has already been shown that this approach works: The National Institute of Health (NIH) as the biggest funder of research in the biomedical sciences introduced a similar policy a few years ago. As a consequence, basically all publishers now offer a suitable option for scientists funded by the NIH. One could argue that Baden-Württemberg is much smaller, so that it is too small to put pressure on big, international publishers and eventually its scientists will suffer. However, Baden-Württemberg is not alone: The EU adopted a similar policy in their new research program Horizon2020, and federal German institutions like the Max Planck Society and the DFG are considering such rules as well. Hopefully, other German states will follow the example of Baden-Württemberg [3].

It should be mentioned that the requirements considered now in Baden-Württemberg (also known as “Green OpenAccess”) are pretty mild. Articles on the journal websites do not have to be freely available and journals can still sell subscriptions. And articles are posted on the scientists’ websites or university repositories only after six months. In fact, quite a few journals already comply with the proposed rules [4]. This is, for example, the case of Nature and Science and for many journals in physics-related field.

Finally, it should be mentioned that some journals might charge the authors money if these want to retain to make their articles freely available in order to make up for their loss in subscription revenues. Whether this is a valid argument for the mild requirements discussed here is another discussion, but if more strict OpenAccess rules are enforced, this will certainly be justified. In this case, it will be important that those who set these rules (i.e., the funders) also provide scientists with the necessary money for publishing costs.

To summarize: I believe that to make scientific results freely available, coordinated efforts by funding agencies or enforced by law are the only feasible way. This does not undermine the freedom of science, but eventually restores it.

[1] “Droht Wissenschaftlern der Zwang zum Selbstverlag?” FAZ, 5.2.2014. No link provided here because of a ridiculous German law called “Leistungsschutzrecht“.
[2] Jörg Michael Kastl, “Neue Steuerung” in Forschung und Lehre 12/2013, p. 996.
[3] The German federalism, in which each state is responsible for its own universities, is not really helpful for a coordinated effort here. So someone has to start.
[4] The SHERPA/RoMEO database provides an overview of the copyright policies of different scientific journals.


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