Subscribe to our newsletter

Open Science – Society Publishers Should Seize the Opportunity

29th October 2014
 | Phill Jones

PiCLSGraham Steel has been actively involved in Patient Advocacy work since 2001. He is also involved in advocating for Open Access/Science/Data and acts in an advisory capacity for the Open Knowledge  and the Public Library of Science.


When the Royal Society published their first proceedings in 1665, they became the first mission driven society publisher. Henry Oldenburg, the founding editor of Philosophical Transactions, realized that that a public forum for exchange of ideas was needed so that scientists (as we would call them today) could collectively work together and share their findings in timely public reports. This innovation effectively ended the previous common practice of secretive, individual research conducted by lone scholars, thereby creating the first era of open science.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.13.19 AMNow, in the internet age, this first era of open science looks not open, but closed. Publicly funded research in the sciences, medicine, the arts and the humanities is often hidden behind journal paywalls and access is limited to those organisations who can afford to pay substantial subscription fees. Journals that in the 17th century served to publicise information now effectively stand in the way of the wider, truly open, distribution of information that the Internet enables.

Open_Science_LogoBut a second era of open science is dawning. Over the last decade, this model has been changing and innovations are now being widely supported by Governments in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere, Institutions, funding agencies, researchers and the public. The Internet also means that scientists can directly share their data and results publicly, in peer-to-peer fashion – rather than resort to the central broadcasting of findings via subscription publications that was their best option in 1665. Where once the journal was seen as a rapid way to disseminate findings to the public while operating as useful filter to control, select and broadcast the most important scientific information, now online communities can communicate instantly while provide their own filters to pick the gold out of the ever expanding mine of data and scientific findings. The second era of open science promises to accelerate discovery and enable collective research on a global scale.

Society publishers were at the forefront of accelerating science through improved communication during the first era of open science. As mission driven entities, dedicated to the communication needs of members, today’s societies should act as champions of open scholarly communication as they once did during the first era of open science. Instead,  commercial publishers, who by their nature are profit driven rather than mission driven, are increasingly involving themselves in open access, content and data sharing.

Despite the initial teething issues, as of earlier this year, PLOS adopted a new Open Data Policy requiring authors to ensure associated data is made openly available. As of October this year, Elsevier announced its Open Data pilot.

It’s pleasing to see the likes of Figshare working with entities such as PLOS, F1000, Nature Publishing Group and Taylor & Francis in this regard.

“Scientific Data is a new open-access, online-only publication for descriptions of scientifically valuable datasets. Our collaboration helps visualise datasets hosted by Figshare and their flexibility and responsiveness ensured a custom solution was created specifically for Scientific Data”. Ruth Wilson, Nature Publishing Group. SOURCE

The way scientists and researchers communicate their work is evolving. In his recent book “Reinventing Discovery”, Michael Nielsen argues that scientific publishing will change more in the next 10 years than it has in the past 200. There has been an explosion in the number of OA journals, data sharing platforms and open source projects in recent years and there has never been more ways to share and publish your work.

In a recent article by Van Noorden et al predict that “More than half of all peer-reviewed research articles published from 2007 to 2012 are now free to download somewhere on the Internet”.  As Van Noorden states, the report in question is “one of a series of reports on open access policies and open data”.

To quote from a post by Neylon et al 2013, “Licenses are just tools, a way of enabling people to use and re-use content. But the license isn’t what matters, what matters is embracing the idea that someone, somewhere can use your work, that someone, somewhere can contribute back, and adopting the practices and tools that make it as easy as possible for that to happen. And that if we do this collectively that the common resource will benefit us all. This isn’t just true of code, or data, or literature, or science. But the potential for creating critical mass, for achieving these benefits, is vastly greater with digital objects on a global network”.

While it’s heartening to see so many commercial publishers innovating to meet the new communication needs of scientists, there is a worry that learned societies are not participating in this conversation and representing their members to the level at which they should. For societies, open science represents an opportunity to better meet members needs; not a threat to traditional business models. Even just going open access is a viable revenue source, for example, the Societies and Open Access Research (SOAR) project, maintains a continuously-updated catalog of scholarly societies which already publish OA journals. “As of August 20, 2014, the catalog lists 890 societies publishing 854 full (non-hybrid) OA journals. Of these, 692 are in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STM or STEM), 95 are in the social sciences, 51 are in the humanities, 6 are in the arts, and 10 cover more than one of these categories”.  SOURCE