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 –