Nature | Editorial

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Disciplinary action

How scientists share and reuse information is driven by technology but shaped by discipline.

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The words ‘technology’ and ‘revolution’ are being bandied around a lot in scientific publishing — and this week Nature presents a special series of articles that explores the industry’s changing landscape (see page 425). But beyond the early adopters of digital technologies who shout freedom from the rooftops and the publishers who look on nervously, what do researchers make of it? Would it surprise you to learn, for example, that more than one-third of academic chemists disagree with the statement “all papers should be published open access”?

The transformation of research publishing is less a revolution and more a war of attrition. Battle lines were drawn long ago and all sides are well dug-in. In 2001, this journal published a series of viewpoints on the future of ‘e-access to the primary literature’ (see go.nature.com/pezj84). Those attitudes seem strikingly familiar today. At the time, the founders of the Public Library of Science initiative (then PLS, now reborn as the publisher PLoS) urged that research results should be stored in free, online, centralized repositories. Technology enthusiasts sang the praises of easy search and retrieval across a wide range of publication formats beyond the traditional journal article, but warned of the need for common standards. Publishers pointed out that someone would have to finance the publication of the increasing tide of information, and debated where revenue sources should come from.

There was a voice missing from that debate: yours. More than a decade on, this journal’s publisher, Nature Publishing Group (NPG), tried to remedy that by surveying more than 23,000 scientists about their experience of and opinions on open-access publishing. The key question is not just what scientists could have, but what they want. The survey results — which NPG plans to release soon — suggest that many scientists are still thinking through their views on the open sharing that the Internet enables, and on whether they want to publish their research openly.

One preliminary result that stands out is the diversity of experiences and attitudes across disciplines. In biology, 17% of papers published by the respondents over the past three years had been immediately made free for all to read by paying the publisher up front, and more than half of the biologists surveyed said that they had published at least one such paper. In chemistry, the proportion of papers was just 4%, and less than one-quarter of chemists had published at least one open-access paper. More than half of biologists felt that “all papers should be published open-access”, whereas just under one-third of chemists agreed (the remaining one-third of chemists neither agreed nor disagreed).

Nor do scientists hold consistent views about how widely information should be shared and reused. In the NPG survey, 45% felt that all papers should be published open access, but only 22% wanted to allow articles to be reused for commercial purposes. A differently worded survey by publishers Taylor & Francis of some 14,500 scholars (split between sciences and the arts and humanities) found a similar inconsistency: 40% strongly agreed or agreed that their work should be “reused in any way”, but only 18% said that it was acceptable for others to use their work for commercial gain (W. Frass, J. Cross and V. Gardner Open Access Survey Taylor & Francis; 2013). The figures perhaps represent a lack of understanding rather than deeply considered views. For example, when NPG asked scientists which open-access licence they had chosen, including share-alike, no derivatives and CC-BY, 85% of people said: “I don’t know”.

New technologies allow a much greater and faster transition to a digital future, and this week’s special issue reveals that scientists are finding a multitude of ways to publish and access their research results. As this journal has noted before, the future of research literature will ideally be an amalgam of papers, data and software that interlinks with tools for analysis, annotation, visualization and citation. The need for common standards is as great as ever.

But it is demand, not supply, that will shape how scientists and publishers grasp these opportunities. For instance, a key reason that online open-access journals are now accepted as a mainstream (if still minority) method of publishing research is because of the mandates steadily introduced since 2001 by institutions and by research funders.

The dazzling variety of publishing options will fragment the information available on the web. Scholars need to think through how they would like that information to be shared and reused — answers may be different for the various disciplines. One revolution does not yet fit all.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
495,
Pages:
409–410
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/495409b

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