Open access good for businesses too

By Grant Jacobs 21/03/2013

Open-access publishing is discussed throughout science and science-writing circles. These initiatives aim to encourage wide-spread open access (free) for the scientific literature, so that anyone who might fit it of use can get a hold of the material.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported on the European Commission moving towards open-access, citing a reason that I’d like to give this a shout-out because it’s a reason I haven’t seen* brought up often and because it might be one reason for nations interested in development and innovation to back open-access.

A common reason I’ve seen offered to support open-access are to enable better access for smaller research institutions or researchers in developing nations. Science bloggers prefer open-access as they can point their readers to the source. Science journalists get access to potential story material. And so on.

Commercial players, and those that straddle commercial and academia can benefit too.

Consultants, like myself, can find access to the scientific literature difficult. Similarly, smaller companies can struggle. So it was interesting to read the WSJ piece open with,

New scientific research must be published for free online, the vice-president of the European Commission said, in a move designed to increase the knowledge pool open to small business and lead to more innovative products. [My emphasis added.]

Similarly, they cite Victor Henning, CEO of Mendeley,

Where universities and big companies subscribe to paid-for journals, the costs of subscriptions could be prohibitive for small business, Mr. Henning said, so the commission’s move opens up knowledge not previously available.

Subscription costs can be substantial, bar a handful of high-volume journals.** As just one example, one of my favourite journals—for it’s content—is Genome Research. The cheapest individual subscription, for on-line access only, is $US1595 per year (institution tier 1 or 2). Subscribe to a dozen journals ‘key’ to your interests and you might be set back $10,000 a year or so.

It’s worse in that this would only cover the journals that regularly publish articles of interest. In practice the literature relevant to any one area of interest is scattered over many dozen journals. A quick look at my reference archive suggests I have papers from over 300 journals over the past few years.*** Large institutes access this wide literature through subscriptions to the publisher’s offerings, rather than (just) on a per journal basis. Even smaller players could afford a large enough core of subscriptions to cover the ‘key’ journals of interest, they certainly couldn’t afford the wider literature. There are means to pay on a per-article basis, but these costs, too, would mount rapidly.

There is also a time factor – and time is money when you’re in business, large or small. I spend more time than I’d like trying to track down papers I believe might be of use.

Open-access has the potential to allow consultants and small businesses to get information that might help them offer their services or develop their products, assisting innovation and rapid development for smaller players.

It’s worth remembering that small companies dominate the workforce. Large companies might well have more presence in the eyes of the public (and politicians), but there are many more smaller players (commercial or academic). There’s also that those small players, of course, might prove the big players on the future.

You might argue that science has little value unless it is ‘consumed’ in some way, intellectual or commercial. Open-access can then raise the likelihood that the research done can be brought to beneficial use.

The WSJ account of the EC initiative gives particular mention to Australia’s recent moves to open-access and that of the USA, and that the European initiative it linked to the initiatives in these countries. (My understanding is the the NIH has an open-access policy, but there is, as yet, not US-wide policy.)

Those interested in the back-story of open-access might try crystallographer Stephen Curry’s many thoughtful posts on this issue over the past year or so as one starting point.

Finally, Prof. Geoffrey Boulton of Edinburgh University is cited (paraphrased) in the WSJ piece as offering the good point that, “Data must be accessible, intelligible and assessable”. We then have a three-fold goal,

  • Accessibility.
  • Clarity of communication. (Something science writers might have a word or two to say on – ?)
  • Assessable. Speaking for myself, I would include in this reproducible, in that others can assess work by re-iterating it.


I add the reference to ‘those that straddle commercial and academia’ as some jobs nominally outside of academia, in the sense of not being within an academic institute, have solid research and literature loads just as academic work does. (I would put myself in this situation, for example.)

* Perhaps that reflects my limited reading of the topic, compared to others.

** The weekly magazine-format science journals like Nature or Science have more modest personal subscription rates.

*** To be fair, a small number of these are journals I wouldn’t usually read for my work – being the source of papers that struck me as curious, or that I used in writing this blog.

Other articles on Code for life:

Scientific article download costs

Independent top-tier open-access biomedical and life sciences journal

Publish a ‘popular science’ version of your thesis?

Peter Lawrence’s Kafka tale of research grant funding

0 Responses to “Open access good for businesses too”

  • How much does it cost to enrol at a University and what level of access to journals does this give you? I know that Massey offered (and may still do) company membership of its library system.

    While no substitute for open access this is an interim step that may offer small companies interested in science access to research journals.

    I hope that MBIE is watching the UK and EU activity around open access and will develop similar proposals for NZ once the dust settles.

    [This Grant isn’t me! – Grant Jacobs (author of Code for life).]

  • Excuse my adding the footnote to your comment – I didn’t want to leave readers confused, especially as I have a habit of adding comments to my own posts with addition material, belated thoughts, etc.

    (Also excuse my writing broadly here to cater for readers less familiar with university libraries, etc.)

    I know the general idea you mean, but I’m surprised to read company membership was/is offered. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. (I doubt companies per se can enrol at a university and I’m surprised that publishers’ subscription licenses allow libraries to offer external companies access to their subscriptions. Perhaps this ls limited to companies that are still university-based or are spin-offs still largely owned by the university?)

    There’s a distinction between library membership and access to the research literature. My understanding is that the public can get membership of university libraries, but that doesn’t entitle them to access to the on-line research literature, only to material on shelves (and generally on reduced loan entitlements compared to current staff and students). Increasingly access to the literature is on-line only; furthermore issues can take a while to arrive in print form. Photocopying articles from the shelves + interloans for material not locally-held was an option a few years back, but is largely impractical now.

    Rumour has it that individuals can (sometimes) get access via their alma mater, as graduates of that institution. One catch there is that what would be needed is remote access as typically people move to another location after graduating. (For example, my alma maters are Canterbury and Cambridge whereas I am now based in Dunedin. Literature access from off campus is via the university’s VPN, so in addition to the library approval you’d need university VPN access.)

    Having said all that (!), enrolling as a student might be one way around things for some people.