The Price of Knowledge [Part 4]: Checking the Balance

Picture of By Rita Alves

By Rita Alves

In a world of paywalls, dubious business models and debatably illegal forces of change, three writers set out to make sense of it all. Now it’s time to conclude our quest for knowledge by taking a look at the future of the scientific community and better yet, to gain those insights from researchers.  To that end, we interviewed dr. Bert Bakker on the issues of Open Science, the scientific landscape in the Netherlands and the future of scientific research.

Almost like a catch 22 spiel

As researchers and scientific journals share a co-dependent relationship, to say the least, the way to free science isn’t achievable by giving up subscriptions to scientific publications. 

“We have to publish our work as part of our job and an overwhelming majority of the journals are hosted, or at least published by the bigger publishing houses. That means by default that if you have published your paper in a journal it ends behind a paywall and you sign off your property rights. [This is] hard to explain at the average birthday party. Luckily things are changing for the better.”

The game-changer is open access, the movement that aims to ensure access to research and publications without any legal or financial barriers. Through this goal, it allows quality ideas and data to be easily shared, contributing to the greater development of knowledge. 

Throughout the last decades, numerous initiatives and declarations were created to support the movement. A notable international step towards the utopia of free access is Plan S. This initiative was developed by cOAlition S, an international consortium,  which aims to make full open access a reality. The initiative includes principles and guidelines to accelerate the process of allowing free access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications generated by public and privately funded research. 

In the Netherlands, researchers have a competitive advantage as “Dutch universities have relatively rich subscriptions. (…) their colleagues [are] probably not that far geographically (…), have a lot less access to [the same papers]. 

Here, the Open Access movement is embodied by the Taverne legal Amendment, working towards more transparency in the scientific field without changing this “very complex system”. The Taverne Amendment grants “Dutch researchers the rights to copyright over their published articles six months after they have been published”. It is one step towards transparency in the field, which reinforces the legitimacy of scientists.

Scientific research in the Alma mater

UvA’s relationship with open access was solidified in 2005 with the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. Put simply, the Berlin Declaration highlights why open access is important and what it actually means.

With the guiding light of striving for 100% open access to publicly funded research, UvA Open Science Programme 2020-2024, put forward an open access policy, outlining expectations and ways for researchers to free their research from the tyranny of scientific journals. 

 Last year, UvA reported that 63% of all peer-reviewed articles at the university in 2019 were published in Open Access. A small increase from the previous year, but a greater leap for open science.

Where does the road take us?

The Open Access movement is like the ending scene of a spectacular superhero movie: the valiant researchers are extremely close to beating the villainous publishing companies. 

Why has the Open Access movement finally gained some proper traction in the last decade? The answer: It comes with many actual incentives and benefits for both readers and researchers, increasing the visibility and reuse of academic titles. This stimulates a spiral of optimistic outcomes, with open access allowing existing knowledge to be shared across geographical boundaries and institutions. This can, in turn, trigger new scientific research and build up knowledge in an accessible manner, generating the much-need citations for researchers’ career and prestige advancement. 

[Having research readily available to the public] it’s also about legitimacy in the 21st century. Not a lot of people will say, oh, Burt, you’re a scientist, so I believe everything you say. (…) everybody can have an opinion about everything”.

However, the movement has still not received its well-deserved recognition and prominence in the scientific world, with many scientists critiquing this knowledge model. As it has only been picked up in the past decade, the number of quality, fully open access journals across all disciplines has not entirely proliferated, causing difficulty for researchers. Hence, “In the short run, it’s not well known how these publications will be evaluated.

Some researchers are not keen on the risky idea if citing “dubious,” low-quality open access resources. Others mention the tricky administrative procedure to publish full-text articles as the reason why they shy away from this movement. Therefore, each researcher must pick their battle, juggling between prestige, affordability and freedom of knowledge. 

The final answer?

Open access is a revolutionary move from researchers to break away from academic publishing norms; but according to research experts, it is not the ultimate answer to “free science.” 

It has opened doors to new business models that can potentially infringe data privacy at the price of free resources. According to the prestigious Science Magazine, the move towards Open Access has understandably shaken the publishing giants’ subscription revenue. To make up for this loss, big players have begun to internalize a new revenue source: universities’ data analytics and institutional metadata. Known as the bundled metricization, these companies offer payment terms that combine open access publication to the researchers and extra services in return for data collection, which is to enhance product development. This datafied conspicuous model, stemming from these companies’ abundant resources and prestige, might squeeze small-sized firms whose revenue solely depends on publishing. 

Standing the test of time

The Open Access movement is one step forward of the intense “science-for-all” advancement. However, the scientific community has yet fully warmed up to this idea, with further constraints from publishing companies hindering this effort. Like any other movement, “we have to be realistic that a system that is in place for so many years, you cannot change [radically].” While it might take more than just the open access movement to entirely liberalize academic publishing, scientific researchers continue their struggle and crusade for a fully open-research world.

If we have this conversation in 10 years, it’s highly unlikely that it will still be the same as it is today. I think we’re moving to more open openness and transparency”.

Long live researchers.


Cover: Karolina Grabowska

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