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AAAS session debates pitfalls and hidden costs of making online research articles freely available

The Internet, in many ways, is the great equalizer -- anyone can write a blog read by millions or drink from a fire hose of free and instant information. In some ways, however, the Internet enforces controversial barriers.

Take access to peer-reviewed journals, for instance: Subscribers can download the most recently published articles at no cost, but others have to pay a hefty fee. Most individuals can't afford a journal subscription, so only people associated with a subscribing institution can freely access new research. This system keeps many researchers in developing countries out of the loop.

Some journals, however, are moving toward an open-access system, where the authors, not the readers, pay the publication costs. For example, 44 of the online journals published by Elsevier charge authors $3,000 to make their articles accessible to nonsubscribers. But in lowering the barriers for readers, is this open access creating new barriers for authors?

This was a hot topic for Cornell researchers speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, Feb. 14-18, in Boston. In a symposium, "Sustainability of Open Access: Does Increasing Global Access Come With Hidden Costs?" Bruce Lewenstein, Cornell professor of science communication, and communication Ph.D. student Phil Davis led a panel discussion on the issue.

Authors, publishers, librarians and scholars have been arguing fiercely about open access for years, and underneath their polarized views lie deeply entrenched values about the freedom of information. Panelists spoke about how different disciplines respond to open access, its role in a global scientific system and its broader sociological implications.

"Most of the [previous] discussion about open access has focused on economic or practical issues: who will pay for it, how to implement it, how to cover the costs for people without grant funding, etc. But the session at AAAS raised a series of issues that I haven't previously seen discussed very much outside the narrow community of people paying close attention to open access," Lewenstein said.

For many AAAS attendees, the open access symposium was their first exposure to the more complex and subtle points surrounding the debate, such as possible career advantages for authors.

"There's been a claim that open access leads to more citations, but we have to disentangle multiple causes and effects," said Davis, a science librarian at Mann Library, who is conducting a randomly controlled study to probe the link between citation frequency, open access and a plethora of other factors.

Lewenstein closed the discussion by speculating about what's coming next: open access to both articles and their underlying resources, such as data sets and analysis tools.

"While we're not there yet, I saw a lot of interesting possibilities for why that might be a desirable goal," he said.

Graduate student Melissa Rice is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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