Accessing the absolute latest in scientific communications directly by the independent amateur or citizen scientist has been a financially daunting prospect for decades; practically impossible. The top research journals carry high subscription rates (price out for yourself one of the best), and the science professional relies on their employing institution to cover the costs of access through the resident library budget, save for a personal subscription to their most treasured journal.

Of course, a great deal of front-line scientific research is funded by governmental agencies, which translates into taxpayer dollars. So, shouldn't the taxpayer be able to access the fruits of their financial investments? Or, should the taxpayer just expect to later benefit from the results of research after implementation by companies and institutions? To avoiding opening a messy can of political warfare here, we will instead focus on the fact that there has been a rapidly growing trend from part of the scientific publishing industry itself to provide open access ("OA") to the most recent articles from scientific research. This trend has been influenced from both the scientific authors and their funding agencies.

A traditional culture about to change

The traditional business model for scientific journal publications is for professional scientists to submit their draft papers to a group of peers -- typically in related fields of expertise -- who brutally review, critique, and feedback on the work. Revisions are made until acceptance of the peers is reached and the paper is published in a future volume of the journal. Individuals or, most typically, institutions then pay for access to obtain printed and digital versions of the published papers. Prices for access are high. It's expensive to pay for the printing, editing, and the peer review process for such technically challenging and critical information and a bit of profit has to fit in there as well.

To change this culture and allow for the free dissemination of scientific advances, new models are being developed and tested. Money still has to be made, of course: the expenses are still present, even if the published materials are openly available to the readers, and even if they are solely digital presentations. One such model requires the author to pay a significant fee to be published (assuming they passed muster with the peer review), or if the author can't bite the financial bullet, then their funding grant money or institution can help out with the bill. This approach is referred to as "Gold OA."

An alternate version, which fits into the traditional subscription publishing model, is self-archiving of published work by the individual author. If the journal offers this permission, which is more often now required by funding agencies, the author maintains a digital copy of the work on a personal or institutional resource separate from the publisher. This "Green OA" approach is dependent on the individual author's follow-through on archiving and requires a separate cataloging service to provide any sense of organization.

The OA explosion

The Open Access movement significantly expanded during the first decade of the 21st Century. A detailed study of this growth of open access by Laakso, et al. [1] published in 2011 (available as open access, of course) found that about 19,500 open access articles in 740 journals were available in 2000, and by 2009, nearly 192,000 articles could be accessed for free in 4,769 journals.

The development of open access publishing 1993–2009. (ref. 1)

The Public Library of Science (PLoS), starting simply as an advocacy group in 2000 and then expanding to an OA publisher in 2003, has been arguably the most successful innovator and proponent of the open access movement in scientific communications. PLoS currently follows the model of author-pays-to-publish-post-peer-review and has been publishing cutting edge scientific research featuring seven journals with tens of thousands of peer reviewed articles.

Quite recently announced (January 30, 2012), an even more extreme model of open access will begin later in 2012 that utilizes post-publishing open peer review with the ability to revise published work after releasing it to the public. This new approach being launched by the "Faculty of 1000" (F1000) group will require a similar pay-to-submit model. Called F1000 Research, this system will also allow for an "open" format for how information is presented, which may include poster presentations, traditional written articles, graphs and charts, and even raw data. The published information will be immediately available after a simple formal check from F1000 advisers that the submission is scientifically relevant, and registered readers will have the opportunity to provide comments and ratings.

The other side of OA

On the other hand of this seemingly exciting new trend for the seeker of open knowledge, the author-pay-to-publish model can potentially be a major hurdle for independent amateurs wanting to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. The fees certainly are steep and it might be assumed that the majority of amateurs do not have the personal funds to move their work through the publishing system. Just as major funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation, require and provide assistance with publication fees for open access availability for scientific professionals, the independent researcher will need to search for outside financing to support the work if it is to intermingle with the professionals.

Although it certainly isn't required that an independent publish their work through a traditional or open access route, it is the peer-review process that really is required to vet the work and help develop it into a final form that provides accurate and valuable information to the rest of the world. The principal of the peer-review process is a critical resource for the scientific community to ensure that rigorous information is disseminated, and the independent should not be outside of this, or at least some form of, quality control. If the independent wants to be taken seriously, they should try to play with the majors, and deal with the financial burdens in innovative ways.

So, it seems that the long-term success of Open Access is rather exciting for the amateur and citizen scientist. It is certainly exciting for Dynamic Patterns Research, which is not a large academic or commercial organization with massive budgets to cover massive journal subscriptions. However, the OA development is not a straightforward path for the future of the business of scientific publishing. Quality is never really free, and for organizations to provide this important peer review and publication services that we need and desire, expecting it to be free might mean significant sacrifices somewhere else.

The debate between the traditional and OA models has been brewing for years, and although growth in OA resources has been substantial in recent years, there is still a long way to go to discover that secret formula for a sustainable business model for Open Access publishers. The premier publishing group, Nature, (and rather expensive journal publisher) hosted a web debate forum [2] in 2004 on the issue of access to scientific literature. In particular, Kate Worlock wrote a "pros and cons" review describing many important concerns that OA would bring to publishers, all of which would directly impact the end user. 

Most notable, in the digital age publishing is heavily dependent on new technologies, and advances and innovations require great investments to develop and implement. With the popular pay-per-article model at current typical rates ($500 to $2,500), publishers will expect a great deal less revenue to meet operational expenses, invest in the future, and make a profit. And, making a profit is not an evil activity: it is from this profit that future growth and beneficial investments can be made possible. With reduced profits, the potential lack of investment ability could bring scientific publishing to stagnation and irrelevancy in the marketplace, obviously resulting in a direct negative impact on the scientific community.

As suggested above, although author fees could be covered by funding sources, host institution libraries might also be on the hook to support their resident research. The open access payment model only shifts the costs from one line item category to the next, and as fees grow higher in the future, budgets may continue to be equally stressed. In addition, larger research-focused academic institutions with significant output might end up subsidizing the pay-per fees from smaller teaching-centric colleges or commercial organizations with fewer annual submissions from their faculty.

Possibly the most critical concern is that many important scientific journals are published by academic societies which host additional activities and benefits to the scientific community. The profits from a society's publishing division allows for the development of membership programs, conferences, and other benefits. With a loss of publishing income, member groups will have to make up revenue elsewhere, likely from the pocket books of the members themselves.

The Federal Government's conflicting approach

As already mentioned, the United States federal government has provided mandates for research funded by taxpayer money to be published in an openly accessible way. For example, the National Institutes of Health requires all of their funded research to be listed with the government-hosted PubMed Central. However, just recently on December 16, 2011, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives called the "Research Works Act," which proposes to restrict the existing mandate of network dissemination of published work -- without the publisher's prior consent.

Certainly this an tantalizing development, which one might cynically think that the publishers have something to do with it ... and, one might be right: The Association of American Publishers announced strong support for the legislation. A thorough review of this complex debate was offered a couple weeks ago by The Chronicle of Higher Education [4], and it is interesting to note that many academic publishers, like MIT Press and Oxford University Press, have already expressed their opposition to the AAP's position and are clearly trying to distance themselves from the anti-open-access side of the debate.

The primary point from the publishers is that although federal funds certainly initiate some of the research work, it is only through the independent professional efforts of the publishers providing peer-review, analysis, editing, and the final development of the work in a format that is desired by the community, that the research work can even be presented for others to access.  And this independent presentation should not be controlled by the government on a case-by-case basis.

Making OA revered

With all of the issues facing scientific publishers to deal with the inevitable advancement of Open Access, it will still largely be up to the scientific authors themselves to make the transition to sustainable OA complete. In the culture of academic scientific research, recognition is still critical as the old mantra of "publish or perish" still drives many young post-docs and non-tenured faculty. Listing twenty articles with unknown journals might not provide the needed prestige as one killer article in the top journal in the field.

Scientists are still getting a handle on what OA resources are available today, and, although many may strongly support their work to be freely available, there still comes a necessarily selfish point where one's own career and security is paramount, and selecting the right journal for submission becomes vital. A detailed survey from 2006 of researchers was reviewed by Alma Swan [3] describing the current state of mind of authors in their selections of journals and what their concerns and ideas are toward Open Access. Of particular note, many researchers still are not aware of the available OA resources in their field, as they likely remain focused on the publications they "grew up with" during their own education. With the current generation of new scientists, it will then be up to the OA publishers to bring their journals to distinction both in the view of their respective scientific communities and in the eyes of the individual scientists working in the field.

We have developed a concise reference list for reaching open access scientific knowledge, which tries to highlight some of the most important resources currently available. The reference list below should provide an exciting portal for interested amateurs to explore some of the top scientific advances happening today.

Open Access Resources

  • Public Library of Science ::
    A non-profit publisher and advocacy organization committed to providing open-access scientific communication to advance progress in science and medicine.  Open PLoS ONE or view the other PLoS Journals.
  • ::
    Maintained by Cornell University Library, arXiv is an open access resource to nearly 3/4 of a million e-prints in physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics. New articles are submitted by the authors and are "pre-print" versions that have been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication consideration or are self-archived versions of previously published work.
  • SpringerOpen ::
    Springer is a major publisher of over 2,000 academic journals covering science, technology, and medicine and thousands of new books each year. The SpringerOpen division is focused on open access journals that are processed with their same high level of rapid and thorough peer review.
  • PubMed Central ::
    An open-access digital library of over two million published journal articles housed at the United States National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM).
  • Physical Review X ::
    From the American Physical Society, publishers of the prestigious Physical Review Letters, comes PRX their newest journal, entirely open access and peer reviewed, and committed to excellence covering pure, applied and interdisciplinary physics.
  • Optics Express ::
    Published from The Optical Society (OSA), whose goal is to advance the science and technology of light, this open access peer-reviewed journal rapidly reports on the latest developments in optics and photonics.
  • Elsevier Delayed Access Journals ::
    A major global scientific and health information publisher, Elsevier produces about 2,000 journals and 20,000 books and reference works. Although none of their current publications are open access, they do maintain a short list of important journals, mostly in biological and health sciences, that become open after 12 months.
  • F1000 Research ::
    Coming later in 2012, F1000 will offer an open scientific publishing system that allows for the presentation of research with a variety of formats, including traditionally written articles, poster presentations, graphs and charts, and even raw data. An open, post-publication peer review process will allow for vetting of the work and revisions by the publishing author will be encourages and facilitated.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals ::
    Browse through listings of the available OA journals by subject and discover your new favorite research reference in the field of your choice.
  • The Registry of Open Access Repositories :: 
    A searchable database providing timely information about the growth and status of OA repositories around the world.
  • The OAIster (Open Archives Initiative) Database ::
    A searchable database for millions of records from thousands of contributors that are all open access. Archived results include journal articles, electronic books, audio, video and photographic files, theses, and more, and it's all open access.
  • CiteSeerx ::
    A searchable archive covering scientific literature from the computer and information science fields. Hosted by Penn State and currently sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
... ...

For more information on the issues in the Open Access revolution, review the PLoS collection of published articles on the topic going back to 2003, including why PLoS became an open access publisher.

[1] Laakso M, Welling P, Bukvova H, Nyman L, Björk B-C, et al. 2011 The Development of Open Access Journal Publishing from 1993 to 2009. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20961. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020961

[2] Nature web focus: "Access to the literature: the debate continues." 2004

[3]  Swan, A. (2006) The culture of Open Access: researchers' views and responses in Jacobs, N., Eds. Open Access: Key Strategic, Technical and Economic Aspects. Chandos.

[4] "Who Gets to See Published Research?" Jennifer Howard, January 22, 2012, The Chronicle of Higher Education