Open access for unrestricted academic exchange

Visualisierung zu Open Access: Mann mit Laptop sitzt auf einem großen, geöffneten Vorhängeschloss
© Getty Images/Yutthana Gaetgeaw

Instead of time-consuming research in university libraries or expensive journal subscriptions, we are increasingly using ‘open access’ to academic publications. The open access movement has given us unrestricted access free of charge to a large number of research results on the internet. It’s fast, easy and extensive. But are there any disadvantages?

Anyone interested in the latest publications on topics such as cancer research can read the relevant journals, such as Science or Nature, in the university library or subscribe to them. Reputed science journals guarantee that the articles they publish are of a high standard and are often cited by other journals. But the rise of the internet has meant that a large number of publications are now only a few mouse clicks away, regardless of which journal they appear in. Open access is part of the open science movement and covers various initiatives and projects across the globe to make academic studies and results available to a wider readership.

Whose hands does the power over information lie in?

Advocates of open access, including many academics, research institutes and interested lay people, welcome these developments. Many people believe that academic journals or rather their publishing companies are exploiting their market position by dictating high prices. Even university libraries pay for the subscriptions, despite the fact that the authors belong to the university research staff.

Resentment of the science publishers’ business practices actually led to a global protest movement against one of the publishing groups at the beginning of 2012. Mathematician Timothy Gowers from Cambridge University called for a boycott of Reed Elsevier, prompting an international debate with his blog entry. On the website dge’, which was created in the course of this debate, more than 13,000 academics are now demanding that authors should have the right to provide open access to their publications.

Open access promotes knowledge transfer by mouse click

There are alternatives to expensive, restricted access to academic publications, for example , the Public Library of Science’s international online journal. The website publishes open access articles and summarises key requirements made of the freely accessible online publications:

The publications can be accessed from any computer with an internet connection; the author retains the copyright; manuscripts are published relatively quickly; they are peer-reviewed by experts; quality and can be determined using post-publication tools; users can discuss the articles in communities. As open access publications are available free of charge throughout the world, even people in poorer countries who usually lack the financial means can access and use them.

A driving force behind research or intellectual theft?

Other arguments in favour of open access include the increased visibility and citability of publications and all the other advantages of digital use, such as availability any time, anywhere, being easier to find using search engines and the option of saving, copying and printing an article. In addition to the many advantages, however, there are also a number of disadvantages to the open access movement.

In terms of cost, there are no clear answers, because open access publishers work in very different ways. Who pays for a publication? There is much debate about the various proposals, including a model in which the authors themselves finance the publication or the idea that organisations should sponsor them. In addition, critics of open access are concerned that research results and ideas could be stolen. Even though the authors clearly retain the copyright for open access publications, there is a need for legal certainty. provide clear rules about the extent of use, for example.

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