Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Open Access

There's be quite some talk about Open Access across the internet recently, largely thanks to the acceptance of the Finch Report, making it a requirement that the results of publicly-funded research be freely available to the public.  This seems like such a obviously correct thing that it might come as a surprise to many that it is not already the case.  On the other hand, it often seems like much science research is just a scheme to turn public money into private enterprise, so perhaps there should be no surprise.

On top of this, European grant funders are doing the same, as I tweeted recently from the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin last week, during a talk from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the current European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

In a way, though, it's all a bit disappointing.  Currently publicly-funded scientists perform research, write it up in the form of a paper and send it off to an academic journal.  The journal editor, or editorial team, will arrange for peer-review (done at (usually) public expense, as an unpaid favour by other scientists), and if the peer-review is successful the journal will publish it.  Then they will charge the scientist's (or scientists') institute thousands of pounds to buy the article back in the form of a journal subscription.  It's this subscription cost that the new policy will seek to change in some form or other, and they have done it not by challenging the whole system, but by encouraging, or mandating that authors pay to have their articles made open access (which many journals allow).  Typically, most journals currently charge of the order of a couple of thousand pounds to do this.  Many of the blog posts and twitter comments worrying about the new announcement have concentrated on this part - that pushing the cost to the author rather than the reader is no help.  Those comments are probably right.

To my mind, the better solution would be to dispense with traditional journals and do something along the lines of Peter Coles's suggestion for an electronic open-access journal that would be rather cheap to run.  There are already other examples around, such as the wonderful Journal of Integer Sequences, and the major stumbling block, judging by comments I've seen, is that employers and potential employers currently put much stock in the impact factor of where a scientist has published, and people not already somewhere high up the ladder will want to do what gets them jobs.  Clearly, in a sane world the employers would judge the merits of the science, rather than just look up the impact factor of the journal.  If the UK government wants to be bold and iconoclastic in its support of open access, it should rather ask for all REF outputs to be presented to the panels scrubbed of their publication details and outlaw the use of bibliometrics as a proxy for judging scientific merit.  It make make the REF more expensive to run, but changing the open access model would overall make science cheaper to fund.

Of all that's been written or spoken about this issue (and I attended a couple of sessions at ESOF2012 about this) the only one that really makes me think twice is the fact that many learned societies depend somewhat on income from journal publishing.  In my area, the UK Institute of Physics and the US American Physical Society publish good journals, to which I send most of my papers at present.  They are generally good guys in my mind;  their journals are priced pretty reasonably, and the IoP even make all their articles free to read for a month on publication, and I do appreciate that the current model for publishing is somewhat expensive.  I slightly worry for these good institutions if the traditional journal is on the way out, but it's not a strong enough argument to retain the old model, for me.