Note: this post is part of a series on habits of the open scientist. Here I discuss the first habit, open scientific publishing.
Why you should publish openly
A hallmark of important scientific work is that it is reused, modified, and built upon by other scientists. As a scientist, I spend a great deal of time and effort advertising my work to others so that they will read it and use it.
By default, scientific works fall subject to copyright law, which is intended to prevent reuse and modification. To make matters worse, the copyrights are typically held by publishers who charge a fee just for access. Copyright makes sense for musicians and popular authors, because they make a living by charging for access to their works. But as a scientist, I don't get paid by those who read and use my work, nor do I seek to. So copyright does not serve me, even from a purely self-interested perspective.
Stepping back from personal interest, I believe that academic scientists have a moral imperative to freely distribute their work, for two reasons. First, in academia science is primarily funded by taxes. Therefore, it has been 'purchased' by the public and cannot rightly be withheld from them. Second, and more importantly, science is intended to benefit humanity. If it is to do so, it must be shared and communicated. That is why it has been said that "science must push copyright aside."
The open scientist proactively ensures that published research is freely and conveniently available to all. Ideally, the open scientist releases research under a license like Creative Commons BY that explicitly allows use in derivative works as long as attribution is given.
How you can provide free, open access to your work
Green open access (self archiving): independently of publication in a journal, the author uploads a pre-print, post-print, or final published version of the article to an institutional server, preprint server, or personal webpage. Anyone can download this version of the article for free. The author pays nothing and the reader pays nothing.
I have written elsewhere about the dangers of the gold open access model. Suffice it to say that the gold open access approach severely limits which journals I can submit to and consumes my research funds, whereas the green model does not. I post all my preprints on the arXiv and on my professional website before submission. Where allowed, I post final versions as well.
Many journals still have restrictive policies that prevent green open access. If you believe this to be the case for journals that you publish in, it's worth checking to be sure. You can easily find this information in the Sherpa/Romeo database. The number of publishers who still don't allow any kind of green open access are surprisingly few. For instance, even the evil Elsevier typically allows archiving of pre- and post-prints.
Best practices: pushing copyright aside
If you are brave, you can even modify the journal's copyright transfer agreement, to allow you to retain copyright and release your work under Creative Commons BY. This is also (surprisingly) often accepted by publishers. I haven't done this yet, but I plan to do so with all of my future papers, including those currently under referee.
This first habit of the open scientist is essential but no longer revolutionary. The open access movement has really picked up speed in the past year, with many petitions and initiatives by governments and funding agencies moving forward.
Next up: Habit #2 -- Reproducible research: open code, open data.