Should scientific articles be available free online?

Health and medicine explained.
Dec. 14 2004 4:21 PM

Open Access

Should scientific articles be available online and free to the public?

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If the NIH decides to implement its proposed policy—and an announcement is expected sometime this month—the open-access movement will receive a crucial shot in the arm. Not only will many more articles be available through PubMed Central, but the call by advocates for faster free access (without the six-month delay) will likely grow louder. Some journal publishers will no doubt rethink their business strategies, in order to compensate for actual or expected revenue losses.

Of course, it is hard not to sympathize with traditional journal publishers, who for years have been careful stewards of the scientific literature, editing articles and selecting scientists to participate in peer review. But the change would not necessarily mean their demise. Many scientists (and science writers) would likely still subscribe to publications like, say, Science and Nature, largely for the valuable extras they offer, such as news blurbs and research summaries published each week. Journals could continue to charge fees for these features, even while adopting open access policies for new research.

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This is a story, then, about adapting to the digital world: How should we harness its enormous possibilities while trying to reckon with vested interests that stand to lose in the transition? Ultimately, the potential benefits of open access, for both scientists and the public, are too significant not to pursue aggressively. At a time when technical material is accumulating more quickly than ever before, extensive online databases can help scientists do the most informed work possible. At a time, too, when patients are asked to participate much more actively in health care decision-making, better access to information is crucial. The NIH's proposed compromise, in which articles are posted to PubMed Central six months after publication, is a reasonable one. But it is only a first step toward a larger goal—namely, true open access, immediately upon publication, for as much scientific work as possible.

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

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