Sunday, November 22, 2009

Open access

It’s possible that twelve years of working as a programmer in the online publishing industry has sharpened my interest in open access, the idea that the public should have unlimited access to all scholarly publications. PLoS recently published "University Public-Access Mandates Are Good for Science," in which the author argues that, among other things, public access will help lift the “veil” from faculty research, creating greater public interest in (and funding for) research.

Open access is good for everyone who participates in research, really, except for the publishers. Current publication models based on fee for access, subscription or pay per view, aren’t compatible with open access. They might be compatible with a delayed access model, in which new content is embargoed for a year or so, then released to the public, and some people advocate those models. Others advocate the use of government funds to provide the services currently provided by the publishing industry.

What’s the publishing industry currently providing, and funding by charging for access to articles? Peer review is a service often mentioned, and it is extremely important. If a paper were published without having been reviewed by its author’s peers, no one would have any good way of judging its value. Loss of peer review might lead to chaos and the inability to find the wheat in the chaff. However, I am not convinced that this service can really be said to be provided by the publishing industry. The peers who review are, by definition, other researchers in the same community as the author of a submitted paper. Reviewers provide their services to a particular journal for free, as a resumé building move, to get a chance to see the very newest research before anyone else, and possibly out of the goodness of their hearts, to give back to the community. Would they be equally willing to donate their time to a well-known non-profit or university-affiliated group which organized review services, rather than a for-profit publishing group? I don’t see why not.

Indexing is also important. If a paper is no longer archived on a journal’s web site, but instead at a university’s institutional repository, would readers need to know the researcher’s university affiliation in order to find the paper? Readers could continue to use indexing services such as PubMed or Google Scholar, just as they do today. When presented with the title of an interesting article, my first step in finding the article’s text is never to try to find the journal’s site. I always visit Google Scholar first and let it show me my various options.

Journals are certainly useful for discovery purposes. I use Google Scholar to search for answers to specific questions, but I don’t use it to keep track of current research in a particular area. For that, I follow the latest articles published in particular journals, such as JAVMA or Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Certainly non-profit entities could serve similar purposes, aggregating links to important new recent articles. Authors might submit articles to these entities, just as they currently submit articles to journals.

The journal which publishes your article has a significant effect on how your article is perceived. If your article was accepted by the prestigious journal Nature, its importance will be perceived by readers to be greater than if the only journal you could find to accept it was some dinky little publication no one’s ever heard of. Again, non-profit entities could fill this purpose, but there would be some necessary lead time as some of them became established as high quality and others as, well, not so much.

What I haven’t seen mentioned as a useful contribution by the publishing industry is production editing — correction of spelling mistakes, bad grammar, and typos; modification of the paper’s layout to make it easier to read; conversion to PDF. I’m not sure if this is an important contribution in scholarly publishing or not. The articles I read seem to have more than their fair share of typos and grammatical mistakes compared to published books; it seems that in this area, content is valued much more highly than form. Perhaps this sort of work is something society would be willing to see lost.

This is all somewhat theoretical stuff at this point. Articles are being published open access (for example, in PLoS, the Public Library of Science), and indexing engines are indexing them. But the non-profit entities that I’m envisioning don’t seem to be springing up, and scholarly communities are still extremely dependent on publishing companies; the majority of articles are published in traditional for-pay journals. As a result, the goal of 100% release of scholarly articles under open access still feels somewhat distant. Some institutions are requiring their faculty to archive all publications in an open access institutional repositories; Harvard's new open access mandate is the most famous of these mandates. However, these institutional repositories have been described as “roach motels”: information goes in and doesn’t come out, due to poor searching facilities and lack of adherence to standards. (See “Institutional Repositories: thinking beyond the box.”) One previous comment on this blog mentioned arXiv, a highly successful open access repository in some of the hard sciences, but arXiv does not provide peer review services. A lot of the pieces of the puzzle exist, but they have not all been put together in a coherent way.

How can we organize the scholarly publishing community, which in fact consists of a huge number of communities in varied fields with their own publishing traditions? I’m glad it’s not my job to find the answer to that question. I suspect the answer will appear in its own time, and until then, I’ll keep following the various debates about open access, waiting to see what happens.


  1. I actually know a couple of people who are, or were, editors on medical/biology journals (I think one of them still is, and one of them has moved on). The impression I got was that without some firm editing, you'd see a _lot_ more typos/grammatical errors than you do at the moment -- not least because many, if not most, scientists are writing for publication in a language which is not their native language.

  2. Good to know! I originally structured this post as ending with the question "so is production editing important here?" but then restructured, because I didn't think anyone would know the answer. I'll think about that; it seems like there should be some way for a non-profit to provide that service, but it is certainly true that that kind of skill is currently best sought in publishing companies...