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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."

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