Opening up to open access…

If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you’ll know that I’m not overly political here.  That’s not to say that I’m not opinionated (I’ve got plenty of opinions), but I don’t tend to post specifically in order to weigh in on timely political topics.  However, having recently wandered into a battleground only to discover that I’ve chosen a side, it feels right to jot down a few thoughts on the topic while my blood is still simmering.

What am I talking about?  Well, I’m talking about Open Access (OA) science publishing.  If you’re reading this blog you’re probably familiar with at least the basics of the debate, but whether you are or not I highly recommend reading this parable by Mike Taylor that puts the issue in clear language, and this recent press release on Tim Gower’s blog explaining the reasoning behind the Elsevier boycott (5398 and going strong!).

I recently ended up tangling with Robert Kurzban and others over this subject over the Evolutionary Psychology blog, and in the process of joining the discussion (I’ll refer you to that post to read more;  it’s too long to reproduce here) I discovered that I do, in fact, support the ideals of OA with a strength of feeling that surprised me.  What do I believe?  My belief, upon looking at the ethics and data (what exists, anyways) behind the current journal publishing system is that there are two parts to the argument:

  1. Publishers like Elsevier employ a business model that is exploitative and verges on (is?) corrupt.  Their product is the free labor of scientists, repackaged and copyrighted with little to no added value in the internet era, and sold back to the public that paid for it and the scholars the created it at a massive profit.
  2. The second part of the argument is whether a better alternative exists, in the form of Open Access (OA) publishing.  I believe that OA is a better alternative ethically, financially, and for the betterment of science as a whole.  OA has an obvious effect on the reach of a scientific paper (as the audience is now potentially anyone with an internet connection and the interested to read it), can have a positive effect on citation, and is more accountable and transparent.  On the other hand, the models for OA are still being worked out, and although the issue of publishing fees has been overblown it is still a valid concern, as are concerns such as a lack of OA journals in one’s sub-field, issues about career advancement (maybe), and the effort to move journals to OA publishing or start new journals.

Where do I stand now?  Well, for one thing, I haven’t yet signed the Elsevier boycott.  Why not?  Because I haven’t thought it all the way through yet.  I’ve just recently sat down to get my head straight about open access and found that I have strong feelings on it, and so I’m still coming up with a way to work that into my professional life.  I don’t know yet what form that will take;  I would like to publish exclusively in OA journals, but I don’t know if that’s yet an achievable goal for me, especially as I have collaborators to consider who may or may not the same way.  I do know that I will be searching for good OA alternatives to the journals I publish (ha!) in now, and that I will be looking for ways to increase my support of the OA movement as much as I can.

And if all else fails, I’ll write some more blog posts.  That helps, right? 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Opening up to open access…

  1. Dave says:

    ‘Very interesting’, as one friend was wont to say, skeptically. In any case, thanks for posting and the links. I thought the Guardian parable was only interesting, but it was nice to see that the author understands that one of the primary purposes of scientific publication is no longer dissemination of information but career advancement. However, I found the absence of economic thinking very distracting. Once the teleporting duplicator was in distribution, the farmers might have all the food they needed, but most would be bankrupt and unable to purchase any of the other necessities of life. Also, the metaphorical mix of independent farmers and tax-supported scientists created too much cognitive dissonance for me.

    The tradition of scientific publication seems to have started mostly from scientific societies publishing papers of their members for limited distribution and to raise a bit of money to support the societies. The elitist chest-butting was all in getting into the society to begin with and the costs borne by those interested in the science. But a scientific society that publishes their own journal is fast becoming a thing of the past: it is easier, and usually profitable, to let a large publisher take over the duties (and reap the bundling awards). Besides, as big science has become an appendage of government, the dissemination/archiving of information has become a minor function of scientific publication: career advancement trumps and status comes from being on the right bandwagon and ‘high-impact’ publication.

    To me Open Access seems like a desirable goal, but it will be complicated getting there. Open Access publication at exorbitant fees for the authors doesn’t seem like a good solution, but open access after some period when the publishers make their profits (most papers having short half-lives) might be a good intermediate step. Copyright laws need reforming too, before there will be much progress.

    Bundling is a definite plus of the current system for any discipline that appreciates access to obscure journals. Another benefit of ‘corporate takeover’ is the digitization of back issue which then become available with the bundling. This may not be of much use for the ephemerata published in Nature, Science, and most of the other large journals, but I find it very helpful when trying to track down and use older papers where the authors may be dead, retired, or just too challenged to make their own pdfs.

    Of course, one can always email an author and ask for a pdf and anyone truly outraged by the current system could self-publish their papers on the web now with no additional cost beyond writing it. I’ve seen one physics journal that seems to do its reviewing online – they put up a paper and toss it to a ravening pack of reviewers. I don’t know if this produces better papers, but it is interesting.

    Universities, whose library budgets seem the most affected by the publishers’ profiteering, could also start open access publishing of the results of their own scientists. I think that this would be a responsible type of open access – the universities accept the research funds that support the labs that produce the papers – and presumably a university would be able to provide reasonable quality assurance. But that would ignore the status-seeking aspects of publication. I suspect that, for example, the mathematicians targeting Elsevier, would be less than happy for their universities to publish their papers.

    Sorry for running on so, but thanks for the stimulus to mull through these ideas.

  2. […] an integral part of the process of talking about science (and it’s part of the reason for my support for Open Access publishing). And I think that disgraceful trainwrecks like the reporting on […]

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