petermr's blog

A Scientist and the Web


Should I publish Open Access?

In a reply to the last post Pablo (a leader of the Quixote project) asks:

Pablo Echenique says:

December 10, 2010 at 5:12 pm  (Edit)

I have another question for you, Peter. I have thought about emailing you but maybe this is a better place:

I would like that all my publications go to open access journals, like the PLoS ones… but… there are so few! and many of them are low impact factor, which may make more difficult my future career and, specially, that of my youngest collaborators, who still do not have a permanent position.

What are your views on this?

Thank you.

I think millions of young people are asking this and it’s a very difficult question. As you read this remember I am 0105 years old and so I cannot give completely objective advice. In this area I do not force my ideas on my coworkers. Left to myself I will publish in Open Access – with other authors I am fairly quiet.

Firstly, why publish? There are a number of possible reasons:

  • To record one’s work and to get priority
  • To communicate your work to others
  • To offer your work for peer-review (whether formal or not)
  • To receive merit from the community (e.g. “citations”)
  • To preserve your work for posterity
  • And to fulfil various obligations (e.g. to funders)


    In some cases (6) gives you no choice. Wellcome, NIH and many research councils require Open Access publishing. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to take their funding. I’m guessing that (5) is not at the top of young people’s lists – after all young people are immortal. And almost every publication satisfies (1) although I have published in a journal (Internet Journal of Chemistry) and I think the papers are lost.


    So it comes down to 2, 3, 4


    Let’s first dispose of peer-review. PR is given for free by academics and others. There is no evidence that Closed Access journals have better peer-review than Open Access or vice versa. (Yes, the ludicrous PRISM of Closed Access publishers lambasted Open Access as “junk science” but no honest Close Access publisher will take that view). Your fees (whether author-side or reader-side go to the management of PR, not PR itself).


    So the decision rests on “do you want people to read your work” and “do you wish people to rank your work”.


    It’s obvious that if an article is Open Access there are more people who can potentially read it. Many people are put off by the hassle of reading Closed Access (e.g. if you have to go through some paywall). And many people are put off by the actual cost. 30USD for 48 hours rent is very high. Moreover if you do not know what is in the paper before you read it you may decide not to read it. After all even 10 seconds glance at a paper can tell you it’s of no relevance and it still costs 30 USD. (or more). How many times have you (a fortunate university reader) glanced at a paper for 10 seconds and then moved on?


    However in the information-saturated world you can’t read everything and traditionally journals have been a way of bundling content into packets for particular readers. In the electronic and multidisciplinary world this is no longer necessary (although it’s still common). So journals have become branding labels. They are a simplistic way of saying “this paper is better than that paper”. It’s a bit like Gramophone records used to be. Or book publishers. A very blunt approach, but it had its supporters. So we’ve moved to a situations where scientists follow brands rather than make rational decisions. The university system reinforces this. People get promoted if they have a NatSci paper as opposed to PLoS. And the publishing houses can make a lot of money out of promoting brands. Bibliometrics shows that one publishing house not far from Kings Cross has done exceptionally in promoting its brand for all sorts of disciplines. Does this mean that their papers are better, or simply that their marketeers are better? Why do people buy one fragrance as opposed to another? Or any other fashion accessory? It’s not the raw value of the item – it’s the perception that has been built up.


    So in my opinion the scientific publishing market is based on perception rather than value. But what about citations? Well citations are a very very blunt tool. They come after the fact, they often don’t recognize new or controversial value, they are subject-biased and they can be heavily slanted to – say – methods. Worse, the Impact Factor (how many academics voted to introduce impact factors?) is an average over a journal. It flattens and distorts the individual.


    All this is known, but not widely enough.


    This will change. The first change will be that we become good at discovering individual papers and measuring their values. Journals become irrelevant if (but only if) the academic world wakes up and stops kowtowing to this outofdate concept of a journal. In which case *where* you publish should not matter as far as readership is concerned, except that if it’s Open Access it will have more readers. However the CA publishers will react against this and I would predict a greater introduction of restrictive contracts with libraries. For example not allowing access to “journal X” unless you also buy Y. Or increasing charges because more people read the material (I have heard this is starting to come it. Resist it with your life). We now see greater pressure on library budgets.


    We are in a prisoner’s dilemma. It’s clear that universal Open Access is superior for humanity in general (except for shareholders of some companies who will start to miss out). But there is no easy smooth path there. Change puts greater financial pressure on all players.


    In the best of all possible worlds I’d like to see the role of publishers diminish sharply and academia reclaim what it produces and owns. I’m not sanguine. Vice Chancellors and Principals fight against each other. They could, if they wished, redesign the system so money was more efficiently spent and scholarship was published more widely. But I doubt they will. So I predict continuing mess, fewer scientists reading publications, even fewer of the general public reading them.


    In this broken world, Pablo, I don’t know what should be done. I think there’s a chance of a grass-roots Open revolution. Where people move away from Closed access. Many other sectors are becoming Open – academia may be seen as an unacceptable anachronism. When students (in the UK) riot about the cost of fees, why shouldn’t they riot against expensive publications. (Lecturers cannot copy their own papers for students to use without paying fees).


    The positive force is that people’s work will become known by means other than their publications. For informal recognition you will become known for Quixote – and hopefully widely. I communicate to more people through this blog than through papers. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an increasing trend.


The real problem is (4). The authors of the Blue Obelisk software are widely known and highly regarded. si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Christopher Wren is known for his cathderals, not his academic publications. Joe Townsend’s Chem4Word has had 250,000 downloads. But that doesn’t even equal 1 citation in the sad world of academia.


I think and hope that aspiring young scientists will buck the system and publish where and how they feel fit. I hope, with less conviction, that academia will value that.


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