Science, Peer Review, Open Access and Controversy.

Following Nature’s Future of Publishing special issue this spring, Science has just published a similar series of articles under the theme “Communication in Science: Pressures and Predators.” Needless to say, there is a definite ideological bent to the articles included in both, and to the dismay of folks like myself, more misleading information about open access. Having not read each piece carefully yet, I won’t speculate too far about the content therein, but I did want to point out the affect these Special Issues have on the cultural context and perceptions of open access. 

The Economist, which in recent years has published interesting pieces about the potential of open access and issues in academic publishing, has missed the mark with this piece, Science’s Sokal Moment. Here’s my response, written as a comment to that article:

I think it’s important to note that there are some factual errors in this piece.

“The publications Dr Bohannon selected for his sting operation were all open-access journals. These make papers available free, and cover their costs by charging authors a fee (typically $1,000-2,000).”

According to the Directory of Open Access Journals, actually 70% of the journals listed there DO NOT charge an author fee at all. There are many business models of funding for open access journals.

“Policymakers have been keen on such periodicals of late.”

Many academics are keen on the principle of open access also, including those at prestigious universities like Harvard, Princeton and MIT, who have all passed actionable policies in support of making scholarly literature accessible online.

“But critics of the open-access model have long warned that making authors rather than readers their client risks skewing publishers’ incentives towards tolerating shoddy science.”

The issue that is overlooked in this statement is that currently authors (faculty at universities) are the producers, laborers, reviewers, and consumers (“readers”) of academic publications and it is actually libraries that are the clients. The costs of academic publishing are totally hidden to the very group that create, consume and invest in this industry. The traditional publishing company’s incentives are to capitalize on the free labor of scientists and scholars and reap the financial benefits as long as the costs of production are secret. Asking faculty to write publication costs into their grants, or asking universities and libraries to support the research on the front end rather than through subscriptions, may actually incentivise publishers to approach their role in this system with more caution, as everyone will be paying more attention to their financial stakes therein. Open access journals are forthcoming and transparent about the costs involved in producing research, whereas traditional publishers tend to restrict that information to shareholders and CEOs.

Open access journals, which are just one of two ways to achieve open access, show considerable promise for involving a wider collection of interested parties in the ongoing academic conversation, the “unintended reader” if you will. I’d like to direct readers to two responses to Dr. Bohannon’s piece, which point out holes in his reasoning much more effectively than I could:

Peter Suber, of the Berkman Center at Harvard -

and Michael Eisen, a Biologist and co-founder of PLoS -

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4 thoughts on “Science, Peer Review, Open Access and Controversy.


    To show that the bogus-standards effect is specific to Open Access (OA) journals would of course require submitting also to subscription journals (perhaps equated for age and impact factor) to see what happens.

    But it is likely that the outcome would still be a higher proportion of acceptances by the OA journals. The reason is simple: Fee-based OA publishing (fee-based “Gold OA”) is premature, as are plans by universities and research funders to pay its costs:

    Funds are short and 80% of journals (including virtually all the top, “must-have” journals) are still subscription-based, thereby tying up the potential funds to pay for fee-based Gold OA. The asking price for Gold OA is still arbitrary and high. And there is very, very legitimate concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards (as the Science sting shows).

    What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate OA self-archiving (of authors’ final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication) in their institutional OA repositories, free for all online (“Green OA”).

    That will provide immediate OA. And if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions), that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition), offload access-provision and archiving onto the global network of Green OA repositories, downsize to just providing the service of peer review alone, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model. Meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs.

    The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a “no-fault basis,” with the author’s institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.

    That post-Green, no-fault Gold will be Fair Gold. Today’s pre-Green (fee-based) Gold is Fool’s Gold.

    None of this applies to no-fee Gold.

    Obviously, as Peter Suber and others have correctly pointed out, none of this applies to the many Gold OA journals that are not fee-based (i.e., do not charge the author for publication, but continue to rely instead on subscriptions, subsidies, or voluntarism). Hence it is not fair to tar all Gold OA with that brush. Nor is it fair to assume — without testing it — that non-OA journals would have come out unscathed, if they had been included in the sting.

    But the basic outcome is probably still solid: Fee-based Gold OA has provided an irresistible opportunity to create junk journals and dupe authors into feeding their publish-or-perish needs via pay-to-publish under the guise of fulfilling the growing clamour for OA:

    Publishing in a reputable, established journal and self-archiving the refereed draft would have accomplished the very same purpose, while continuing to meet the peer-review quality standards for which the journal has a track record — and without paying an extra penny.

    But the most important message is that OA is not identical with Gold OA (fee-based or not), and hence conclusions about peer-review standards of fee-based Gold OA journals are not conclusions about the peer-review standards of OA — which, with Green OA, are identical to those of non-OA.

    For some peer-review stings of non-OA journals, see below:

    Peters, D. P., & Ceci, S. J. (1982). Peer-review practices of psychological journals: The fate of published articles, submitted again. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5(2), 187-195.

    Harnad, S. R. (Ed.). (1982). Peer commentary on peer review: A case study in scientific quality control (Vol. 5, No. 2). Cambridge University Press

    Harnad, S. (1998/2000/2004) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature [online] (5 Nov. 1998), Exploit Interactive 5 (2000): and in Shatz, B. (2004) (ed.) Peer Review: A Critical Inquiry. Rowland & Littlefield. Pp. 235-242.

    Harnad, S. (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).

  2. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you ought to write more about this issue, it may not be a
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