Sea Snakes, Scholarly Sharing and Open Access

Photo of a sea snake swimming in the water

At the beginning of September an article in The Conversation reported the new discovery that a sea snake could breathe through the top of its head.

It quickly became one of the most popular science and technology articles for 2019, with over 43,000 reads, and was translated into Indonesian, enabling the people who live closest to these sea snakes to learn more about them. Behind the story is a scholarly article. Published in Royal Society Open Science the article is free to read and reuse by anyone around the world. In fact, the data and supplementary material is also available, all without charge or legal restrictions. This is what is referred to as open access.

Anne Hawkins, the library's Copyright and Open Access Coordinator, spoke to Kate Sanders, one of the researchers behind the discovery, about how open access works for her.

Contributing to the research community

Dr Kate Sanders is an ARC Future Fellow based in the School of Biological Sciences. Her research into the evolution of sensory systems in sea snakes often takes her to Indonesia and Western Australia, leading to the discovery of new species, and generating ecological and distributional data that have contributed to conservation assessments.  

In discussing what motivates Kate to make her research open access, the idea of positively contributing to the research community shines through.

Many of Kate's research publications can be found in open access journals, such as PLoS One and Open Biology. These articles are free to access, and have clear reuse rights, from the moment they are published. This is particularly important to Kate as much of her research focuses on species found in developing countries. Researchers from these areas typically have limited access to institutional subscriptions, so ensuring that the work can be accessed where it’s most needed is a priority.

Kate’s open access contributions go beyond the published articles, with a wide range of data and supporting materials also freely available. These include datasets, high resolution tomography and histology images, and videos, which can be found in a number of places, including the University’s data repository, Figshare. She also adds new genomics data to GenBank, an open access database of all publicly available DNA sequences.

Any code developed to analyse the data is also made open access. Kate talks about the frustration associated with coming across articles that refer to the use of in-house scripts for analysis without those scripts being made publicly available. Releasing both the data and code increases transparency and improves reproducibility. Researchers are also free to reuse the code in their own research, which may lower duplication of effort and increase research efficiency.

Benefits and challenges

Open access may contribute towards building a more equitable society and represent value for money for publicly funded research, but there is a growing body of evidence that suggests open access is good for the researchers themselves.

Studies have shown that open access articles have significantly more page views when compared with pay-walled articles, and on average they have higher citations rates. Making the supporting data available is also associated with a 25% higher citation impact on average. Open access articles have the potential to reach a wider audience, with a general media advantage, and they are 47% more likely to be cited in a Wikipedia entry.  

The aim of open access - providing free and unrestricted access in order to increase the impact and benefit of research - is hard to disagree with. However, researchers often face challenges putting open access into action.

Kate mentions that choosing where to submit papers for publication can still be dictated by the journal rankings. These metrics are often used as a proxy for quality despite the fact that they don’t relate to the individual research. A lack of acknowledgement can also exist for non-traditional research contributions, such as data and code, which can be discouraging for researchers who are putting in the time and effort to make them available. Then there are the costs to consider. While open access is free for users, authors may have to pay an article processing charge to cover the publication cost, and this can vary from $0 to over $7000. For Kate, careful consideration of the options has led to her work appearing in a mix of open access and closed subscription access journals.  

A number of initiatives aim to fix some of these problems. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment establishes a set of principles to improve the way research is evaluated and transformation publications agreements are designed to shift library subscriptions from a pay-to-access to a pay-to-publish model. While it will take time to see the impact of these initiatives, the University Library is already assisting researchers like Kate to make more of their research open access in ways that are both legal and free.

Making your research open access

Open access options are available for many articles, including those published in traditional subscription-only journals. To ensure widespread access to articles that were locked behind publisher paywalls, Kate added the author accepted manuscript version of her articles to Adelaide Research & Scholarship, the University's institutional repository. 

To make your articles publicly available via Adelaide Research & Scholarship, simply upload your author accepted manuscript into Aurora. (The author accepted manuscript is the version of your article that has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication, but is not yet formatted, copy edited or branded by the publisher.) Behind the scenes, the library will check publisher policies to ensure that any and all conditions are complied with, and that your article can legally be made available. As soon as the process is complete your article will be available within Adelaide Research & Scholarship for the world to discover.

More information

More information is available on the Open Access website or by contacting the Copyright & Open Access Coordinator, Anne Hawkins.

Image credit:
White Banded Sea Snake by Robert Scales, CC BY-NC-SA

Tagged in open access, open access week, researchers, research, research data management