Open data for open science

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The costs would be high but not prohibitive: roughly 60 million pounds each year. But in return the Britannic Majesty's scientists have an on line peer review communication system that has totally open access: on line, open to all and free. There are enormous advantages to this. In logistic terms, since there would no longer be the need to find physical spaces. In economic terms, because at the moment English universities are spending 2,7% of their budget subscribing to magazines and setting up their libraries (both paper and on line). But above all in cognitive terms, because the scientific community could continue to comply with one of its founding values - communicate everything to everyone - and one of its most significant processes, such as the critical analysis of all its results.

            This is, in brief, the essence of the report Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications that was recently published by the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, the English group, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, who studies scientific communication systems. The Royal Society published in June its unequivocal report titled: Science, as an open enterprise. Open data for open science. Science – according to the Royal Society, one of the most prestigious academies in the world, which published the first important magazine the Philosophical Transactions - is an open society, whose data should be accessed freely.

         The English newspaper The Guardian revealed on the 16 of July that the English conservative government would like to adopt the Finch Report and the Royal Society's indications and will try to implement them. The English magazine Nature, one of the most prestigious and best selling scientific magazines in the world, sustains that in the coming years open access will be an inevitable condition in the world of science communication.
         But the open access issue is not just limited to Great Britain. It's far from being resolved. Recently at the U.S. Congress a bill was put forth, the (US Congress, HR 3699) which asks the National Institutes of Health to change its politics, which obligate researchers who work with taxpayers' contributions to publish their work on open access magazines.

         This is not a trivial problem. And the stakes are very high. We are reminded by Paolo Rossi, the great historian who recently passed away, that modern science began in the XVII century when a paradigm was broken down: the paradigm of secrecy. One of the values that the emerging scientific community recognized was the need to “communicate everything to everyone”, with the idea in mind of a total transparency. A value that became the norm: the communication system, as John Ziman wrote, has become the primary social institution of the scientific community. And the peer review method, the critical analysis of all the available information, has enabled human activity to reach unparalleled successes in creating new knowledge. We could say there is no science – not as we have known it in the last 400 years, at least – if there is no total communication of science: or rather if the information produced by the scientific community is not complete, effective and freely accessible to everybody.
         Today there are at least three factors that make it difficult to obtain what the Royal Society defines “open data for open science": the culture and procedures of private companies that fund research; the growing number of researchers and science magazines; the high costs of subscribing to magazines.

         In order to get around the first obstacle, the U.S. National Institutes of Health inaugurated the obligatory open access policy for those who carry out research with public funds. Tax payers have the right to access new knowledge for which it has contributed towards.

         The second obstacle emerges from the process of the enormous expansion the scientific community has undergone in recent years. Today there are over 7 million researchers in the world, which produce 1,9 million scientific articles published on 25.000 magazines with peer review, the majority of which are paper magazines. To these we must add the indefinite, but no doubt enormous, amount of data collected and circulated outside of this circuit (such as books, conferences, brochures, magazines that are not part of the census or that are not peer review). No institution in the world is able to subscribe to 25.000 paper magazines nor able to collect the data that is circulating in a less organized way.

         The third obstacle is represented by the cost of the subscriptions. It is estimated that the average cost of a chemistry journal exceeds 3,000 euro annually. And to subscribe to some highly accredited natural science journals the costs can reach up to ten times that amount. The costs stem primarily due to the oligopoly that exists among the international scientific publishing companies. Only three private groups – Elsevier, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell – control 42% of the articles that are published. They don't pay the authors (whose main interest is simply to publish their work) nor the referees who traditionally collaborate anonymously and for free. These companies manage to make profit margins that exceed 40%, which is unheard of other industrial sectors, because they impose the price they want to institutions that are generally public. The costs are increasing while the funds for university libraries and research centers are decreasing. Both in the USA and in Great Britain, for example, the university budget amount for libraries has dropped in a few years from 3,5 to 2,5%.

         The combined effect of these three obstacles prevents a complete and free circulation of scientific information. Access, for one reason or another, is denied to many. And all mankind partially loses the advantage of having, at the moment, a number of researchers that is greater than the sum of all the scientists that have lived in the past. Scientists are also given financial aid every year (2,0% of the world GDP is invested in research and development; this amount rises to 2,3% in OECD countries). This is unprecedented. A solution to these three problems is technically possible: to create a network, using public funds, with a series of open access journals where the old value of «communicate everything to everyone» can be concretely recovered. At least a part of these funds could be found by the savings made from the libraries. If the open access journals network were to be created at an international level, the savings would be even greater.

         From this point of view the European Union could do a lot. Why not begin at least discussing it (we say this for the benefit of those who are discussing the problem for some time now) and relaunch the debate as they are doing in Great Britain and the United States?

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