Should Sigma Xi Support Open Access?

by Jamie Vernon | Oct 20, 2017

Sigma Xi Speaks, October 2017

Jamie L. Vernon

Data is the currency of research. Scientists and engineers rely on the flow of data to advance their investigations. The public uses data to address health concerns, build businesses, and make policy decisions. This information is usually shared through scientific publications, which are accessible at research institution libraries and publisher websites.

But what happens when a university fails to renew a journal subscription that is used by its faculty or publishers charge exorbitant fees to download articles? Too often people are cut off from important sources of scientific information.

Researchers can ask their library to acquire a copy of an article or they can use institutional resources to purchase the article online.

The public, which helps fund much of the research published in these journals, has even fewer options for accessing the information, particularly in non-urban regions of the United States. They are left to rely on the media to translate the research for them, which presents its own set of challenges including misinterpretation, biased reporting, and disinformation campaigns. All of these options disrupt the free flow of information necessary for efficient scientific exploration and use.

Open access, a system that makes research articles available to all interested parties at no cost, could be a solution to disseminating research results to students, the scientific community, and the public. Open access makes information readily accessible while shifting the financial responsibility away from the consumers and onto the publishers and authors. This publishing model is not without controversy. Researchers question whether a pay-to-publish model undermines the credibility of scientists. Publishers argue that a closed system provides better quality and reliability.

I believe this is an issue that Sigma Xi should be thinking about. Because our members are greatly affected by the scientific publishing system, it would be in our interest to participate in the ongoing conversation about the pros and cons of open access publishing.

The Questions

We recently started a conversation in Sigma Xi's online community by asking the following questions: 

• Should Sigma Xi promote open access, and to what extent?

• What can Sigma Xi do to help improve access to scientific results for the public and students?

• How should scientific publishers be compensated for their work in an open access system?

What Members Have Said So Far

Some members already responded with informative feedback such as: 

• The open access online scientific journals are opening up inexpensive open access publication opportunities for scientists in underdeveloped countries and also for scientists in developed countries who do not have access to the types of funds that traditional subscription journals usually demand and are also making those articles freely available to all scientists, not just those scientists fortunate enough to be associated with a wealthy institution or organization.

• The fundamental problem is that no one has found a [open access] business model that really works on a broad scale.

• The arXiv physics repository has been increasingly successful for the physics community over the last 25 years to the extent that today formal publishing in journals managed by for-profit publishers is merely a formality at the end of the process of divulging physics research results and receiving peer-review commentary.

Over the next three months, we will share additional information about this important issue.

Join the Conversation

We invite you to send us your opinions about the opportunities and challenges of open access publishing. You can participate in our online community or by email at

Here are some links to help inform the discussion:

Are Open Access Journals Immune from Piracy? 
Source: The Scholarly Kitchen 

Open Science Revolution—New Ways of Publishing Research in the Digital Age
Source: Scicasts

German Researchers Resign from Elsevier Journals in Push for Nationwide Open Access 
Source: Science

List of Open Access Journals
Source: Wikipedia


Jamie Vernon Signature
Jamie L. Vernon, PhD
Executive Director and CEO
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society
Publisher of American Scientist

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