From historical manuscripts to digital databases: Stephan Feller (left) and Stefan Artmann sit down for a chat in the ULB’s Hungarian Library. (Photo: Michael Deutsch)

Making science freely available: Open access publishing

The open access movement began 15 years ago. Prof. Stephan Feller, a molecular biologist, and Dr. Stefan Artmann, a private lecturer in philosophy, discuss how it will change science in 2016 and the opportunities and challenges that will arise as a result of its development into an open exchange of specialist publications. It is a topic that occupies both men. Feller is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Open Access Journal “Cell Communication and Signalling”. Artmann, who heads up the presidential office at the Leopoldina, is a member of the working group “Open Access”, part of the priority initiative “Digital Information” of the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany. 

How would you explain Open Access?
Stephan Feller: Open access means that research findings are made accessible to the public. The internet has enabled content to be disseminated quickly. You no longer have to go to the library or subscribe to a journal. The basic idea is that a lot of what goes on in science is publicly financed and it doesn’t make much sense to limit public access to data that was generated largely by public funds just because publishing them makes commercial sense.

Stefan Artmann lehrt als Privatdozent für Philosophie an der Uni Jena und leitet das Präsidialbüro der Leopoldina. (Foto: Michael Deutsch)

Dr. Stefan Artman is a privat lecturer in philosophy at the University of Jena and heads the presidential office at the Leopoldina (photo: Michael Deutsch)

Mr. Artmann, you are from the field of philosophy. Is open access just as relevant for the humanities as it is for the natural sciences?
Stefan Artmann: If you look at how things currently stand, open access is more important for the natural sciences. The debate shows that natural scientists, and particularly life scientists, are the vanguards of the open access movement. This doesn’t mean, however, that the humanities remain untouched by it. It’s just that publication habits are different. In the humanities, book publication still takes centre stage. That is a major challenge: what do we do in the case of monographs? And how do we treat the often very tight-knit relationship between author and publishing house? Several small publishing houses are historically very closely linked to specific subjects.

What role does open access play in your research for you as a scientist?
Feller: I was at Oxford for a long time where you had nearly everything at your fingertips in the reference library. Yet, even at Oxford you only have access to 90 per cent of the journals through subscriptions – fees paid centrally by the library, or through access rights that the publishers grant to the university. In Halle the important journals that we need for our work are simply not freely accessible. Of course you can buy the article. The problem is that you are often unsure whether the paper is even important. That means you pay 50 euros just to find out within two minutes that the study is nonessential to your work.  That is not very expedient. In the natural sciences it is becoming increasingly important to have quick access.

Does this apply to your work as well, Mr. Artmann?
Artmann: These days you are disappointed if you are unable to access an article in a public database or an open access journal which is two or three years old. Younger colleagues and students have similar expectations to those prevailing in the natural sciences. Open access also promotes the internationalisation of research. Many subject areas in the humanities are strongly characterised today by national research traditions.  This has been deconstructed, not least because of digitalisation. Now a Google search enables me to much more quickly find a journal on my topic that was published, for example, somewhere in the USA. It used to be that you often only heard about it by chance.

To what extent is open access relevant for students?
Feller: There are some subjects that are developing so quickly that textbooks are nearly out of date by the time they are released. In this case, freely accessible review articles, which allow you to prepare for specific course content, are used in the seminars instead of books. This basically only works when the content is online and freely accessible.

Artmann: Another important development is that in the qualification phase – be it a master’s thesis, doctoral thesis or habilitation – students are given the chance to at least publish their paper in their university’s own repository. This allows the papers to be searchable worldwide and to have higher visibility.

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Open access: taking the green or the golden road?

Today there are many different ways to make specialist literature free, and to make it publicly accessible and utilisable on the internet. When researchers publish their latest papers in an open access journal that fulfils all the requirements of the open access movement, we call it the golden road. These free, open-access publications are usually financed through publication fees which authors or their institutions have to pay. Scientific institutions that have set up publishing funds for this purpose have been receiving support in Germany from the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) “Open Access Publishing” funding programme since 2009.

Even when a scientific paper is initially published in a fee-based journal, the author can also opt for the open access green road, by either providing a copy of the text online or by publishing and storing it in his institution’s digital archive, a so-called repository. Commercial publishing houses have developed another publication model that has, however, come under scrutiny.

In the case of hybrid publications, the paper is published in a fee-based printed journal and is placed online for everyone free of charge. The publisher charges the author publication fees to do this. Institutions that are funded by the DFG programme are not allowed to participate in hybrid journals.

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