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The Black Hole

Open access is “a journey not an event”


Two weeks ago I attended the Flow Cytometry UK Meeting and their keynote speaker was Douglas Kells, the current chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). He gave an inspiring talk about the benefits and utility of open access publication and what the BBSRC (and other funding agencies) were doing to promote it. He summarized the open access battle as “a journey, not an event” and described the process as akin to shifting a cultural norm – that is it will take some time before open access becomes the standard and we all look back on the time of restricted access as the dark ages.

The stakeholders

Professor Kells first listed the major players in the open access game. Universities are obsessed with research performance and researchers themselves crave publication in high-impact-factor journals. Funders are looking for the maximum research impact while publishers are generally out to create revenue. Finally, libraries wish to provide the best possible service for readers and the current system is a complicated quagmire of licensing fees and journal package subscriptions.

Gold vs. green open access

In the spirit of being realistic about the transition process for journals, there are two modes of open access currently being pursued. The first is gold where upon payment of a single article processing charge, the article is released instantly as Creative Commons (CC-BY) which means that anyone can use it so long as attribution is given. The green category is the same but permits self-archiving and sometimes an embargo period where the journal holds rights until an agreed period has elapsed (typically 6-24 months).


Many journals have already complied with gold (e.g., PLoS journals) or green (e.g., Nature) open access and according to Professor Kells, very few are holding onto no open access options at all. The BBSRC, in collaboration with Sherpa-Romeo, Joint Information Systems Committee and the Wellcome Trust are preparing a directory of open access journals website to list journal compliance levels which should help promote the transition of more journals to gold, or at least green, open access.

The future beckons

One of the biggest advantages in Kells’ mind of open access is the ability to improve text mining. The literature is too vast for any individual to comprehend and Kells cited a study which quoted 8% as an estimate for how many research findings are included in abstracts.  Open access would give text mining algorithms access to more knowledge and in turn this will create new knowledge and new connections not currently possible.  A useful tool to begin exploring what this level of interaction and data scouring can do is called Getutopia – a “free PDF reader that connects the static content of scientific articles to the dynamic world of online content”.

Overall, the future for open access is very bright, but it requires the stakeholders to figure out a way of establishing the new cultural norm.  For now, I encourage our readers to always consider open access when submitting their work for peer review – changes of such magnitude requires buy-in from all players.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Reuben Kaufman / August 21, 2013 at 18:28

    I understand the concept and the advantages of open access. But who pays for it? Even when I had a research grant (before retirement) it certainly was not rich enough to pay the typical fee ($1-2k per article); and the university sure wasn’t gonna pay for it.

    Then there is the aura of it being like a vanity press (although I agree that this argument is weak for most peer-reviewed journals).

    Although I continue to publish in post-retirement, I now constantly come across the issue of not being able to pay the fee. I imagine that some (many?) reputable journals will waive the fee, but I’ve already had to withdraw a manuscript from a very reputable journal because they do not consider fee waivers.

    I’m perfectly happy to have my articles available only in the traditional way (go to the library!), and not seconds after publication. If the work is good enough, eventually it will be referenced by the relevant academic community!