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Why Open Access Matters to the Public

As Chris Surridge, Managing Editor of PLoS ONE, mentioned in his recent blog, the science journalist and medical doctor Ben Goldacre has just written a blistering attack on closed access journals in his weekly Bad Science column in The Guardian.

In his attack, which was titled The Price is Wrong, Ben wrote:

"There are some things which are so self-evidently right and good that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree with you. The 'open access' academic journal movement is one of those things. It’s a no-brainer. Academic literature should be freely available: developing countries need access; part time tinkering thinkers like you deserve full access; journalists and the public can benefit; and most importantly of all, you’ve already paid for much of this stuff with your taxes, they are important new ideas from humanity, and morally, you are entitled to them."

Ben's attack followed hot on the heels of a presentation he gave at the Biomed Central Open Access Colloquium, alongside some of the luminaries of the open access movement, such as Jan Velterop and Richard Smith.

Ben gave what he called the "everyman's" perspective on why open access matters, from the point of view of someone who has worked both as a journalist and also for an NGO.

In addition to the open access movement being "morally strong" and "politically subversive," Ben gave two major reasons why open access matters.

The first is that many professionals' working lives are made difficult or impossible unless they have access to the archival literature.

Ben gave the frustrating example of working for an NGO "advising them on different methods of drug treatment in the community for addicts," during which time he did not have journal access privileges. "I was unable to access any academic work on it at all," he said. "And it felt particularly egregious given that the work I was trying to access was research that had been performed on every day members of the community. People had given themselves up–given their bodies over–as participants in clinical research on the understanding..the transaction was…that they were contributing to the wider body of knowldge and there I was trying to access that and it was impossible for me."

The second reason he gave was that "open access journals actually represent a very powerful force in promoting the public understanding, promoting the public engagement with, science."

Ben gave the compelling example of a recent health scare story reported in the media: cell phones cause brain cancer. When he read the stories in different newspapers, none of them mentioned the actual data that the scare was based upon–the newspapers simply included quotes from authority figures. With open access, the public can read the research articles that have triggered the scare stories and assess them for themselves.

The great benefit of open access publishing, he concluded, is that giving universal access to scientific data not only promotes transparency but reasserts "the centrality of the methods and the results as being the most important part of science."

  1. It’s a bit ironic to claim “the centrality of the methods and the results as being the most important part of science” and then discard the scientific method and argue the benefits of open access on moral and ethical grounds as being “self-evidently right and good” and “a no-brainer.”

    It is a field worthy of study to know how patients and the public come to understand science and apply it in their everyday lives. It is by no means self-evident that open access is an effective way to achieve public understanding. (This is not an argument to limit access for the public’s good, but rather not to claim a public health benefit for open access when none has been demonstrated.)

    In the case of brain cancer and cell phone use, for example, I think most members of the public were better served by good newspaper accounts than they would have been by trying to read individual papers in radiation biology or epidemiology that are largely indecipherable to the lay reader. The recent Chicago Tribune article (,0,4981586.story?coll=chi-business-hed),
    for example, provides the balance, context, and interpretation–including a discussion of the potential for study bias–needed for the public to put new research in perspective.

  2. I have published AIDS Treatment News for more than 20 years, and have never had good science or medical journal access — never a fraction of what an Ivy League college freshman gets on day 1. It’s been a constant hassle, loss of effectiveness, and loss of time trying to cobble together free access, subscriptions, press copies, document delivery, assistance of friends, pay per view (often $30 per article or more), and doing without. In some ways the problem is getting worse, as libraries that used to allow access to print copies now get them only online, and are required by contracts with publishers to keep independents out. And when I do get access, most of my readers don’t, reducing the value of my work to them.

    I’m now doing news aggregation at, and just don’t include stories if there is no free access, at least to an abstract. Requiring free registration is also problematic. Few readers can subscribe or register at dozens of different publications.

    None of this is a problem with PLOS, of course.

    Other publishers are learning that these restrictions reduce their readership and influence. Some day they will develop business models for a digital age, instead of persisting with what does not work.

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