The recent move by the Wellcome trust to create a new Open Access journal has highlighted a long-standing problem with the publication of academic and scientific works. The Wellcome Trust’s proposed solution has been reviewed favourably in all the newspapers I have seen, but I think the extent of the problem has been overstated, and there are serious problems with the proposed solution.
Let me explain:
- Publishing journals is an essential activity for science. Journals form the archive of our collective endeavours and they are precious.
- Publishing journals costs money and somebody has to pay for it.This can be either (a) Readers, or (b) Authors. Option (c) would be ‘somebody else’ but there are no candidates that I know of who would be willing to do this. There are difficulties with (a) and (b) choices.
The problems with the current system (a) have been well-highlighted, but summarising, the main objection is that since the work was generally paid for with public money. the public should have the right of free access to it. What possible objections could there be to such an obviously fair proposal? Well, Slightly to my surprise I have four!
- My first objection is that the arrangement by which someone who wants to publish something pays to have it published is well established: it is called vanity publishing. Another name for people who pay to have their work published is advertisers. Neither vanity-publishers nor advertisers are in general associated with high quality output. With the ‘author-pays’ dynamic, it is the author who is the ‘customer’ and in business, the ‘customer is king’. There is a serious danger that journals will lower the bar to publishing for those that are able to pay. In contrast, with the current system, anyone can publish for free – if the quality of their article is high enough – and so it is in the interest of journals to simply pick the best papers.
- My second objection concerns the cost of making a journal article ‘Open Access’: typically £1500. This is easy to find for well-funded researchers, but it is not so easy for poorer researchers. Imagine a PhD student who wants to publish their work but whose supervisor objects? Imagine a researcher in a poorer country for whom the idea of spending £1500 is a dream! I know retired scientists who publish excellent work but who could not afford to pay for it to be published. And consider this: would Einstein have published all his papers in 1905 or would he have only submitted what he could afford? Since academics are judged in large part on the number of papers published (not necessarily a good idea but a fact of life) this would inevitably favour wealthier students and Universities. Is it not better to have all the information published with a criteria based solely on the quality of the work rather than just what people can afford to publish?
- My third objection is that the problem with access is overstated. All the abstracts of each paper are available for free (e.g. here), and if you write to the authors they will usually be happy to send a pre-print of the paper – an unformatted version containing all the information and data – for nothing. I admit this is slower than ‘clicking’ and downloading – but it is free. Remember journals can only copyright the presentation of (say) a table of data, not the data in the table.
- My final objection is that if the budgets for science are fixed, then this proposal would cut the amount of money spent on science. If (say) £100,000 of research produces 1 paper, then paying £1500 for the publication involves spending £1500 less on the project – a 1.5% cut. If the research project was more successful and produced two papers – the cut would be 3%!