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Fostering open-access in the research community

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Elisabetta Poltronieri of Italy's Istituto Superiore di Sanità reports back from an international seminar on open access held recently at the research institute.

Open access ‘opens up a new path of communication between researchers and citizens that will contribute to relocating science and scholarship within our societies,’ according to Jean-Claude Guédon of Canada’s University of Montreal.

He made this prediction at ‘Institutional Archives for Research: Experiences and Projects in Open Access’, an international seminar that took place in Italy at the end of last year. The goal of the seminar was to raise awareness of the benefits of an open-access (OA) environment (encompassing OA journals and OA archives or repositories). Italy was an appropriate location for the meeting as the OA standard protocol is already widely applied in the country, mainly by academic institutions that are making their resources available in open-digital archives. The conference was mainly addressed to researchers and authors of biomedical publications to help them gain the highest visibility of their research out put by depositing their papers into OA archives (either subject-based or institutional).

The conference was also intended to bring together the views of researchers with those of information specialists. It examined authors’ perspectives and IT developments to support an innovative scholarly communication process. This event gave an opportunity to share ideas, problems and solutions relating to the management and use of institutional repositories. It also shed light on the agenda of activities to be taken by the Italian Group for Open Access. This group, which was set up in Spring 2006 within the CRUI (Conference of the Chancellors of Italian

Universities) Library Commission in order to accomplish the principles of the ‘Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities.’ This group is drawing up national guidelines to support universities and research institutions in defining policies for the creation of open archives and the promotion of e-publishing initiatives.

Science and society

As University of Montreal’s Guédon observed at the conference, open access is reshaping the communication system within science and is redefining the relationship between science and society. In addition to being a challenging way to overcome the scholarly journal crisis, the

OA philosophy represents an antidote to the self-referential character of science. The problem with the traditional approach to communicating research results, commented another speaker, Alessandro Giuliani, who is a senior scientist at ISS, is that ‘only scientists of a specific field can judge the merit of the work of other scientists of the same (or very related) fields.’ As a consequence, the investigation process in science could fail in its effort to achieve real innovation. OA policy statements contribute to ‘letting some air flow into the closed world of scientists’ by expanding the readership of scientific literature.

Even the OA debate itself is helping in this ‘air flow’. Discussions about the OA philosophy have contributed to re-considering some crucial points in the management of scientific information such as what should happen to the output from publicly-funded research; the quality of scientific journals; and the quality of research results dissemination.

Visibility of science

One of the core concepts of OA is the self-archiving of research material on the web to achieve the maximum citation rate of research articles. The number of repositories is rising (about 800 worldwide at the time of the conference) as a result of an increasing awareness of OA among scholars in all disciplines. Derek Law of the UK’s University of Strathclyde noted that the ‘deposit of articles in OA repositories seems to be associated with a larger number of citations’. This could be traced back to the fact that ‘authors put their best work into OA format.’ However, compared with non-OA, OA articles show a considerable advantage in terms of citation counts. There is ‘a significant correlation between downloads today and citations two years later,’ he added.

Such observations highlight the importance of statistical data to measure e-journal access and downloads. This is becoming crucial in order to evaluate the use of resources and formulate subscription acquisition strategies. The reduction of library expenditures for serials could be enhanced by an OA way of publishing. In fact it should be fundamental that libraries verify the use of OA periodicals compared to the non-OA ones in the same fields. If the results of this analysis are in favour of OA journals these could be considered as the way to help with overstretched library budgets.

The necessity of accounting and reporting on research results represents a constant stimulus for developing new tools for scholarly literature evaluation. At the conference, Susanna Mornati of Italy’s CILEA (Consortium of Universities for Information and Communication Technologies) unveiled the characteristics of the SUR+ (SURplus) tool. This is ‘an integrated system for research management that aims to control several workflows related to research activities and their results in the academic environment.’ By adopting standard formats and protocols such as Dublin Core, XML and OAI-PHM, this system guarantees full compliance with the architecture of OA institutional repositories, she explained.

Copyright issues were also debated at the meeting. Such discussions are important in order to fully accomplish OA’s principle goals of removing any economic, legal or technical barrier to access scientific information.

Delegates agreed that there is an urgent need to provide authors with the means to control their intellectual property rights. The priority is to make them aware of the conditions determining the deposit of a paper in a repository or the publication of an article in an OA journal. Well-defined strategies and agreements between research institutions or universities and publishers should be set to guarantee the dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of the whole community research.

Overall, the conference highlighted the need for energetic campaigns to increase authors’ awareness and enable repositories to progress from the planning stage to actual services. The real challenge in setting up an institutional repository is multifaceted, involving a blend of technological, managerial and cultural issues.

ISS's own OA experience

The Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS -Italian National Institute of Health) is a leading research organisation in Italy in all fields related to public health. It has around 700 scientists and the institute’s growing research output amounts to approximately 1,600 publications per year, mostly journal articles. ISS itself is a publisher and owner of the copyright in all material published by the Institute (Annali dell’Istituto Superiore di Sanità, its quarterly journal, which is also indexed in PubMed; Notiziario dell’Istituto Superiore di Sanità, a monthly bulletin; and a series of technical reports). In this publisher capacity, ISS already provides free online access to its publications through its web site (www.iss.it).

ISS has also recently implemented its own institutional repository (dspace.iss.it/dspace), based on the OAI (Open Access Initiative) – compliant open-source software DSpace.Thisrepository currently holds about16,000 items. Through this digital archive, ISS aims to aggregate the scientific publications produced by Italian researchers in the biomedical field. This will allow metadata to be harvested and globally disseminated in order to increase the research impact of literature produced by both ISS and partner institutions.