Keeping an Open Mind about Open-Access Science

It’s International Open Access Week, and the WID community is thinking more about what it means to be open in the world of scientific research. Dorothea Salo, who studies trends in open-access science, weighs in, arguing that a new era of sharing might be more beneficial than we think.

Salo is a Discovery Fellow in WID’s Living Environments Laboratory and a Faculty Associate at the UW–Madison School of Library and Information Studies.

No one likes “pay $40 to read this article” come-ons. No one likes getting no response from principal investigators after asking for the data they promised to share in their latest article. Researchers are busy people; nobody wants to run headlong into a brick wall when all they’re trying to do is look at something useful.

Dorothea Salo
Dorothea Salo

Why have paywalls and hidden data persisted so long, then? Especially in Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Idea reminds us to share our work with the rest of the state and the world? After all, researchers are at least nominally in control of what they share about their research, as well as where they publish.

I could write out the whole song-and-dance about the current scholarly-publishing system and its fundamentally fatal brokenness; I teach it to future librarians every summer. Instead, I’ll focus on what researchers themselves can change, if they choose: what they know about openness and the attitudes they hold toward it.

Here there be dragons, and other myths

If you haven’t been following the open-access and open-data movements, now is a good time to get up-to-date. Many National Institutes of Health (NIH) grantees already know something about open access, now that they are required to place article manuscripts from funded research in the open-access online repository PubMedCentral. February’s memo from the Office of Science and Technology Policy asks most federal funding agencies to follow in the NIH’s footsteps, and adds open data to the mix as well.

I expect a lot of confusion and misplaced anger over whatever the new requirements turn out to be — not because they will be bad or useless, but because entrenched negative attitudes about open access are often based on myths. Peter Suber named and corrected several such myths in The Guardian during Open Access Week.

Myths about open access

  1. “The only way to provide open access to peer-reviewed journal articles is to publish in open-access journals.” (No! You can also use repositories like PubMedCentral, arXiv, SSRN and Wisconsin’s own MINDS@UW.)
  2. “All or most open-access journals charge publication fees.” (Exactly backwards! As a percentage of total available journals, more paywalled journals than open-access journals charge author-side fees.)
  3. “Most author-side fees are paid by the authors themselves.” (No. Grants often pay, and the University Libraries offer a fund to help out as well.)
  4. “Publishing in a conventional journal closes the door on making the same work open access.” (No. Most of the time you can still put your work in a repository!)
  5. “Open-access journals are intrinsically low in quality.” (No. There are high-ranking open-access journals in many, many fields now.)
  6. “Open-access mandates infringe academic freedom.” (No. How does this make sense? Forbidding sharing is what infringes academic freedom!)

All who root out the above myths from their minds, including Suber, have gone a long way toward opening their minds to open access.

“But tenure!”

The most common reason researchers I talk to turn away from open access, both for themselves and those they mentor, is that they fear open access will endanger hiring, tenure or promotion chances. Often they are victims of Myth 1. Uninterested in open-access journals, these researchers just plain haven’t considered open-access repositories.

It makes intuitive sense that open access would help careers, not hurt them. The easier it is to find a researcher’s work, and the fewer paywalls and other barriers between that work and its readers, the more readers the work gets, and the more careers benefit. We don’t know exactly why yet, but repeated studies have demonstrated increased citations for open-access articles, and we are starting to see studies demonstrating an allied citation benefit for articles whose underlying data is openly available.

My own career has benefited immensely from open access. For example, my very first published article, “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel,” has two citations in the very same issue of Library Trends in which it appears. How is that even possible? I made the preprint and postprint of the article open-access in MINDS@UW over a year before the slow publishing process got the article into print. Because I used to run MINDS@UW, I know that the article’s page has been viewed over twelve thousand times since its original posting. If a mere 5 percent of viewers downloaded the article, that’s still a respectable 600 readers!

“The easier it is to find a researcher’s work, and the fewer paywalls and other barriers between that work and its readers, the more readers the work gets, and the more careers benefit.”

–Dorothea Salo

Open as opportunity

Many visitors to the Town Center, on the first floor of the Discovery Building, the same facility where WID is located, exclaim at its openness and beauty. The Discovery partnership regularly throws open its doors to interested faculty, students and other visitors from all over Wisconsin for tours, talks and other events. We don’t do this just to be good neighbors, though of course that is important; we see opportunities in it: collaboration opportunities, teaching opportunities, outreach opportunities, opportunities to discover what the partnership is and what it offers.

Open access is no different. Open data is no different. They create opportunities! As Discovery Fellow for the Living Environments Laboratory (LEL), I am happily pitching in on plans to make many 3D digital-image files constructed for the virtual-reality CAVE openly available, so that other researchers can test LEL’s work and use it on related research. For my own part, I have been asked to work on grants, keynote conferences and articles for peer-reviewed journals sight-unseen on the strength of “Roach Motel’s success.”

Next steps

WID and its partner the Morgridge Institute for Research are already doing groundbreaking research. But are they making their maximum impact on the research community, on Wisconsin and on the world? If would-be readers and collaborators regularly run into paywalls, then they’re not. I challenge all Discovery researchers to embrace open access and open data.

I am happy to help WID affiliates make this happen. Contact me at