Openly Destroying the Paywall

The Bad

It was not that long ago that the great challenge of finding information in science was locating what was out there. The challenges of a literature search in the pre-internet world of academia is almost incomprehensible for a researcher who has only ever known a world with the web. The internet, with its vast library of documents and links between institutions provides a massive repository of all the evidence one could ever hope to read. Despite this, the world of science is far too often hidden beyond a big brick wall, built by private publishers protecting their turf.

Despite all the obvious evidence that being able to share ideas and collaborate represents the best way to make progress, too much scientific knowledge is held in the tight fist of private publishing groups (such as Elsevier) which have consolidated many of the most influential journals in various fields into a vast stable of influential publications. The development of the traditional journal model, arising from the initial days of sharing ideas from researchers supported by individuals, or academies and later universities is very nicely covered here. Also contained in that rather excellent read is a pretty comprehensive description of the rise of for profit publishing groups, who have rather rapaciously continued to increase their charges for subscriptions to maintain their growth. They would justify this by protesting that they do a lot of complex work in the editing and publishing. Deutsche Bank disagreed (taken from the article):

“We believe the [Elsevier] adds relatively little value to the publishing process. We are not attempting to dismiss what 7,000 people at [Elsevier] do for a living. We are simply observing that if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.”

There are numerous problems with the closed publishing model, not least of which is the lack of easy availability of information which is so injurious to scientific progress. However, if there was ever a wake up call to those who’ve slept through the whole issue of sustainability of this model, it would be the moment that Harvard intimated it could no longer afford the subscriptions. Harvard is the richest university in the world. At the point where universities, which fund and conduct the majority of research, can’t afford access to that research, there’s a significant problem.

The Good

There is, however,  a readily available alternative. Open access publishing is touted as the answer to all our paywall grief, breaking down the barriers to the sharing of ideas. At first glance this seems like an easy fix. The process can still be rigorous, but the published work is available to all. Sharing of great ideas can therefore spread like a wildfire across the research landscape and destroy the old school paywall protected publishing system. The thing is, like most new waves of development, the truth doesn’t seem quite as close to the utopian vision as the zealots would have you believe.

As an early career researcher, or a researcher working outside the university system, the displacement of costs from subscribers to the authors represents a significant barrier. At charges for publication of anywhere up to $3500 per article (that’s a figure gleaned by anecdote only), building up a publication record immediately becomes a costly proposition, although there are obviously ways around this.

Another key point to note is that Open Access publishing alone will not suddenly break down all barriers to the sharing of ideas. For as long as academic careers value publications and impact factors alone, rather than the role of the researcher in contributing to the broader global picture, the incentive to share with people you’ve never met remains minimal. It’s a bizarre situation really. Reflect for a moment on where we’d be if the world wide web had remained as a commercially protected, closed system. Yet science and research haven’t fully embraced the potential for shared work offered by the internet. (Take another  moment to reflect on the version of the future where CERN never released this document and made the web royalty free – it’s a sobering thought). The future of open access has to be more than just an insistence from the NIH, Wellcome Trust and other funding bodies to make all funded results freely available. At the point where the tools to let researchers easily work on ideas together in a truly collaborative fashion, progress in research will escalate in ways only previously achieved by computer chips. This is the future early career researchers can hope to experience in the near future.

The Ugly

If open access publishing offers a fairytale future, it comes with odious relatives tagging along like the proverbial ugly sister. The biggest issue facing open access publishing at present seems to be the scam operators that have rapidly jumped into the market. If you’re anything like me, you get some really complimentary e-mails in your inbox. The ones that invite me to submit a publication to a brand new journal. That chose me specifically for my expertise (wow, they really want me!) and got in touch. The ones that invite me to join the editorial board for something new and shiny. Or the ones that invite me to speak at a conference only loosely related to something I once published in an obscure global backwater that clearly has a hotel at the airport.

While it might be nice to feel wanted, it’s pretty apparent I haven’t actually been approached by some highly reputable journal desperate to share my insights with the world (although, this week I’ve apparently been chosen to be on the Worldwide Who’s Who). A lot of them are clearly from journals and publishers that operate as shells, seductively titled with the scientific equivalent of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”. Do a quick search and you can find plenty of stories of people getting duped into agreeing to be on an editorial board, or having large amounts of money charged to them for publication of an article, only to find it is never published.

For the early researcher or PhD candidate, it therefore pays to do a bit of research when receiving amazing offers (or looking to where you might publish). Happily a very committed librarian has done some of the work. A rigorous, extensively documented exploration of all potential pretenders in the Open Access cityscape is available right here at a site which will become the greatest of friends to all those writing up their work.

The Next

Open access publishing is only going to become more popular. This is particularly so now that national funding bodies are starting to effectively insist on this approach. The researcher of the near future can expect to be looking for ways of conducting real time collaborative research, share data openly with others who might hold the key to progress. For any researcher planning to work into the future, this is the reality that must be confronted, and probably not from the  airport hotel.