Ethics of Open Access to Biomedical Research

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_PRINCETON.EDU>
Date: Sat, 4 Aug 2007 13:43:49 -0400

Hyperlinked version of this essay:

        Ethics of Open Access to Biomedical Research:
        Just a Special Case of Ethics of Open Access to Research

                Stevan Harnad

    SUMMARY: The ethical case for Open Access (OA) (free online access)
    to research findings is especially salient when it is public health
    that is being compromised by needless access restrictions. But
    the ethical imperative for OA is far more general: It applies
    to all scientific and scholarly research findings published
    in peer-reviewed journals. And peer-to-peer access is far more
    important than direct public access. Most research is funded to be
    conducted and published, by researchers, in order to be taken up,
    used, and built upon in further research and applications, again by
    researchers, for the benefit of the public that funded it -- not in
    order to generate revenue for the peer-reviewed journal publishing
    industry (nor even because there is a burning public desire to read
    [much of] it). Hence OA needs to be mandated for all research.

(1) All peer-reviewed research articles are written for the purpose of
being accessed, used, applied and built upon by all their potential users,
everywhere, not in order to generate royalty income for their author
(or their publisher). (This is *not* true of writing in general, e.g.,
newspaper and magazine articles by journalists, or books. It is only
true, without exception, of peer-reviewed research journal articles,
and it is true in all disciplines, without exception.)

(2) Research productivity and progress, and hence researchers' careers,
salary, research funding, reputation, and prizes all depend on the usage
and application of their research findings ("research impact"). This
is enshrined in the academic mandate to "publish or perish," and in the
reward system of academic research.

(3) The reason the academic reward system is set up that way is that
that is also how research institutions and research funders benefit from
the research input they produce and fund: by maximizing its usage and
impact. That is also how the cumulative research cycle itself progresses and
grows, along with the benefits it provides for
society, the public that funds it: In order to be used, applied, and built
upon, research needs to be accessible to all its potential users (and not
only to those that can afford access to the journals in which the research
happens to be published.).

(4) Open Access (OA) -- free online access -- has been demonstrated
to increase research usage and impact by 25%-250% or more. This "OA
Advantage" has been found in all fields: natural sciences, biomedical
sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities.

(5) Hence it is true, without exception, in all fields, that the potential
research benefit is there, if only the research is made OA.

(6) OA has only become possible since the onset of the online era.

(7) Research can be made OA in two ways:

    (7a) Research can be made "Gold OA" by publishing it in an OA journal
    that makes it free online (with some OA journals, but not all, covering
    their costs by charging the author-institution for publishing it
    rather than by charging the user-institution for accessing it;
    many Gold OA journals today still continue to cover their costs via
    subscriptions to the paper edition).

    (7b) Or research can be made "Green OA" by publishing it in a
    conventional, non-OA journal, but also self-archiving it in the
    author's Institutional Repository, free for all.

(8) Despite its benefits to research, researchers, their institutions,
their funders, the R&D industry, and the tax-paying public that funds
the research, only about 15% of researchers are spontaneously
self-archiving their research today (Green OA). (A somewhat lower
percentage is publishing in Gold OA journals, deterred in part by the

(9) Only Green OA is entirely within the hands of the research
community. Researchers' funders and institutions cannot (hence should
not) mandate Gold OA; but they can mandate Green OA, as a natural
extension of their "publish or perish" mandate, to maximize research
usage and impact in the online era. Institutions and funders are now
actually beginning to adopt Green OA mandates especially in the UK, and
also in Europe and Australia; the US is only beginning to propose Green
OA mandates.

(10) Some publishers are lobbying against Green OA self-archiving
mandates, claiming it will destroy peer review and publishing. All
existing evidence is contrary to this. (In the few fields where Green OA
already reached 100% some years ago, the journals are still not being
canceled.) Moreover, it is quite clear that even if and when 100% Green OA
should ever lead to unsustainable subscription cancellations, journals
will simply convert to Gold OA and institutions will then cover their
own outgoing Gold OA publishing costs by redirecting their own windfall
subscription cancellation savings on incoming journal articles to cover
instead the Gold OA publishing costs for their own outgoing journal
article output. The net cost will also be much lower, as it will only need
to pay for peer review and its certification by the journal-name, as the
distributed network of OA Institutional Repositories will be the online
access-providers and archivers (and the paper edition will be obsolete).

(11) One of the ways the OA movement is countering the lobbying of
publishers against Green OA mandates is by forming the "Alliance for
Taxpayer Access." This lobbying group is focusing mainly on
biomedicine, and the potential health benefits of tax-payer access to
biomedical research. This is definitely a valid ethical and practical
rationale for OA, but it is definitely not the sole rationale, nor the
primary one.

(12) The primary, fundamental and universal rationale for OA
and OA mandates, in all disciplines, including biomedicine, is
researcher-to-researcher access, not public access (nor even educational
access). The vast majority of peer-reviewed research in all disciplines
is not of direct interest to the lay public (nor even to students,
other than graduate students, who are already researchers). And even
in biomedical research, what provides the greatest public benefit is
the potential research progress (leading to eventual applications that
benefit the public) that arises from maximizing researcher-to-researcher
access. Direct public access of course comes with the OA territory. But
it is not the sole or primary ethical justification for OA, even in
biomedical research.

(13) The general ethical rationale and justification for OA is that
research is funded, conducted and published in order to be used and
applied, not in order to generate revenue for the journal publishing
industry. In the paper era, the only way to achieve the former was by
allowing access to be restricted to those researchers whose institutions
could afford to subscribe to the paper edition. That was the only way
the true and sizable costs of peer-reviewed research publishing could
be covered at all, then.

(14) But in the online era this is no longer true. Hence it is time
for the institutions and funders who employ the researchers and fund
the research to mandate that the resulting journal articles be made
(Green) OA, to the benefit of the entire research community, the vast
R&D industry, and the tax-paying public. (This may or may not eventually
lead to a transition to Gold OA.)

(15) It is unethical for the publishing tail to be allowed to continue
to wag the research dog. The dysfunctionality of the status quo is
especially apparent when it is public health that is being compromised by
needless access restrictions, but the situation is much the same for all
scientific and technological research, and for scholarship too, inasmuch
as we see and fund scholarly research as a public good, and not a
subsidy to the peer-reviewed journal industry.

Hyperlinked version of this essay:

Stevan Harnad

If you have adopted or plan to adopt a policy of providing Open Access
to your own research article output, please describe your policy at:

    BOAI-1 ("Green"): Publish your article in a suitable toll-access journal
    BOAI-2 ("Gold"): Publish your article in an open-access journal if/when
    a suitable one exists.
    in BOTH cases self-archive a supplementary version of your article
    in your own institutional repository.
Received on Sat Aug 04 2007 - 18:49:26 BST

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