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Why Open Access 2.0 Ultimately Leads to Better Science

September 20, 2011 - 09:15 -- Tom Olijhoek

Apart from all the other arguments in favour of open access there may be two less obvious reasons to support it. These reasons are that it may contribute to better science by counter-acting the publication bias in the current publication system, and by discouraging selective publishing on the part of the author.
Let me explain. The current publication system has evolved in such a way that the more spectacular or unusual  the results are, the more the chance is that they will be accepted for publication in leading scientific journals . The same goes for publications confirming these findings. Negative findings tend to be dismissed. In the case of efficacy studies for a new drug two positive studies are sufficient for registration with the FDA while cases are reported where the number of submitted negative studies can be as high as 18 (see:  selective publication of anti-depressant trials and its influence on apparent efficacy). This publication bias is a real problem when validating scientific findings. Published results  are often unrepresentative of the true outcome of many similar experiments that were not selected for publication. For example,  an empirical evaluation of the 49 most-cited papers on the effectiveness of medical interventions, published in highly visible journals in1990–2004, showed that a quarter of the randomised trials and five of six non-randomised studies had already been contradicted or found to have been exaggerated by 2005 (see: why current publication practices may distort science and references therein)
The strategy of publishers to preferentially publish the most exciting stories and stories in support of a new finding is linked to creating  status based on selectivity. This selectivity then is defended with the argument of limited print space. But selectivity is in fact used for something else entirely. In terms of economics it is a way for publishers to turn a commodity (scientific information) of which the value for the future is unsure into a scarce product. This in itself is the well-known commercial process of ‘branding’ where a product with no clear intrinsic value gains value through restricted access and artificial exclusivity. In the case of scientific publications this value then translates into status for the journal and for the scientist publishing in that journal. The most astonishing part of the story however is, that publishers get their product (scientific information) which has been largely produced using public funding,  for free,  and succeed in selling it back to the public with the aid of commercial  ‘ branding’. Seen in this light publication bias is the by-product of commercial branding.
Open Access 2.0 would put an end to these practices. It would give free access to information to the people who already paid for it. At the same time implementation of open access 2.0 publishing would counteract the publication bias imposed by the publishers and possibly also stakeholders like pharmaceutical companies, because the grand total of papers published in this system would be more representative of the actual work done in the field. For the field of malaria research the effect would be amplified through an increase in the number of relevant publications from researchers in the developing world. All this would lead to better science.The consumer based ranking that I have discussed in another post on the MalariaWorld platform (click here) would also contribute to better science because it would provide a control mechanism against  selective publishing on the part of the author of a scientific publication.
Another important but often overlooked aspect of scientific publishing is the availability of the original data behind the actual science. For Open Access 2.0 to really work, access should not be restricted to the mere content of published articles in scientific journals. Access to the raw data behind the articles is equally important, because validation of a publication is not easy without access to the real data.  In spite of the fact that 44/50 journals had a policy put in place for the sharing of data, a recent survey in PLoSONE  (Public availability of published research data in high-impact journals) concluded that for only 47/500 scientific publications that had appeared in these journals in 2009, research data had been made available online. Implementation of an Open Access 2.0 publication system inclusive of Full Access to raw research data would offer a further advantage of  minimizing the possibilities for scientific fraud, which can be anything from biased presentation to the fabrication of data.