Nobel laureate Randy Schekman advocates open access during event Monday

Taylor Vega/Staff

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It is time to move away from print journals and toward digital publications, according to UC Berkeley’s most recent Nobel laureate, Randy Schekman, at an open access event Monday evening.

The Open Access Initiative at Berkeley, a student group that advocates free and unrestricted electronic distribution of scientific and scholarly literature, organized the workshop to provide answers to general and logistical questions about open access. The event was part of the global Open Access Week, which is now in its sixth year.

Schekman, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, discussed the tension between commercial and public journals and the problems caused by important decisions being made by professional editors instead of participants in the research.

“The problem is that when the public — through taxes — has paid for the research, and then the journals charge readers for access to the research that they paid for, there’s something wrong there,” he said.

Schekman said he did not see the importance of open access until he became editor in chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To his surprise, he found that almost one-third of authors at the journal wanted to pay an extra fee to ensure their papers were openly accessible.

“I could tell from this that there was obviously an unmet need, and people feel really strongly about this that they’re willing to pay extra for that exposure,” he said.

He also emphasized the need to reform the peer-review system that he said gives rise to comments that are not constructive from anonymous referees who might not have the sufficient academic background.

Schekman is currently editor in chief of eLife, an open access digital publication, eLife, which is dedicated to life science and biomedicine research. He outlined the peer-review system used at eLife, in which referees view one another’s reports and a board member, who adjudicates the process, makes a decision unilaterally.

He acknowledged, however, that eLife’s publishing model is expensive and would be difficult to replicate without significant funding.

“We’re succeeding to the extent that other large organizations and government agencies want to join us as new members of our group,” he said. “So if other disciplines outside the life sciences were able to convince other large organizations to do this, with a significant infusion of cash, it could be done. But it can’t be done without the cash.”

In July, the UC Academic Senate adopted an open access research policy that requires UC faculty members to make their papers available to the public free of charge. The policy will be implemented at UC Berkeley in November 2014 after a yearlong trial period at UCLA, UC Irvine and UC San Francisco.

“We’re at a really exciting place with open access because the UC open access policy just passed,” said Angelica Tavella, a co-founder of the Open Access Initiative at Berkeley. “We’re just trying to get people to care and be aware about this.”

During the event, Pamela Samuelson, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law and UC Berkeley School of Information, compared the UC policy to the system at Harvard, where the university has an “irrevocable right to distribute (faculty authors’) scholarly articles for any non-commercial purpose,” according to the Harvard University library website. At UC Berkeley, however, faculty members can apply for a waiver from the policy on a per-article basis.

UC Berkeley senior Jahlela Hasle, who was at the event, said she was concerned about finding access to academic papers after graduating.

“I’m a student in science, and I benefit from the access that I have at the university,” Hasle said. “But once graduation comes, I’ll be looking if there are articles that I need for research, and they’re behind pay walls.”

Schekman highlighted the importance of informing undergraduate and graduate students about open access.

 “The audience we need to address are the young scholars who are doing important work and who need to be informed about the issue concerning the publication of their important work,” he said.

Somin Park covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected].