Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Open access explained

By Anna Goldstein

The conversation about scientific publishing has exploded lately, online, in print and in person. In March, the journal Nature released a special issue called The future of publishing. Also in March, Michael Eisen (molecular and cell biology professor and HHMI investigator at UC Berkeley, and co-founder of PLoS) posted a speech he gave on the past and projected future of scholarly communication in the age of the Internet. I want to start there, because his remarks were thorough and persuasive, and they inspired me to think differently about the issue of open access.

If you don’t have time to read the whole transcript, I’ve pulled out a couple key points from Eisen’s argument against traditional science publishing:

1. Journals are inefficient

When I want to read a particular paper, I download a PDF via UC Berkeley’s subscription to the journal. Of all the work that went into making that PDF available to me, from conception of the idea to final publication, the services that the journal provided is a short list: coordinating reviews, typesetting, copy-editing (sometimes), and online hosting. Eisen argues that the money paid to journals by libraries is not well-spent, since the bulk of the production effort was either done for free by volunteer reviewers or paid for by taxpayers, in the case of the research itself. According to Nature, the average revenue per article for the entire science publishing industry in 2011 was $5000, which includes a 20-30% profit margin.

This certainly seems like a crazy system until you realize that the journal delivers a far more valuable currency than dollars to both the researchers and the university: prestige. Simply by rejecting the large majority of submitted articles (Nature had an 8% acceptance rate for 2011), the big name journals confer on their published authors the mark of quality and impact, which is worth more than gold in the competitive world of science funding and hiring.

The system of selecting papers based on impact is a vestige of the printing press era, when journals could only afford to publish a handful of articles per issue, so the most important papers (as judged by reviewers) rose to the top. Eisen wonders why we are still tied to this limitation, when practically unlimited numbers of papers can be published online.

2. Lack of access harms the public

This next point was something completely new to me. As a chemist, I have never felt like the public is clamoring to see my work. When I write a paper, my intended audience is other researchers in my field, who can most likely access it through their own institutional subscriptions. There are a few degrees of separation between my results and the end goal of societal benefit.

Nature cover

But what happens when science can have an immediate impact on people’s lives, like biomedical research about life-saving technologies? Patients scour the web to learn about their health care options, and they find lots of bad information given away freely, while the most cutting-edge work is behind a paywall. Why shouldn’t those patients have immediate access to government-funded research?

As a side note, there seems to be a big difference in opinion on open access among various scientific fields. According to Nature, 17% of biology papers in the last 3 years have been open access. The percentage for chemistry is a whopping 4%. Physicists, on the other hand, have heartily embraced the practice of posting preprints on sites like arXiv, where papers can be read even before journals publish them. Are chemists simply more enchanted with the game of competing for spots in high impact journals, compared to other STEM fields?

Thinking about it more, I realized that society would likely be better off if all research were widely available at the time of publication. I’ve heard from so many colleagues about their friends and family members who work for small companies and depend on them to share library passwords. Are you worried about a lack of jobs in science? One surefire way to kill innovation is to delay or cut off the spread of information. If we admit the importance of non-academic researchers to the future of science, then we must remove the handicaps that have been placed on them.

3. It’s the principle of the thing

Not only technical innovation is put on hold while we cling to old-fashioned publishing structures. The entire human world is using information technology to change how it communicates, while scientists are trailing behind, shaping our work into flat, non-interactive documents. As Eisen puts it, “…the only thing that distinguishes a contemporary paper from a 17th century one is the occasional color photograph.”

There are a ton of creative ideas out there about how we could be sharing information, e.g. the second Beyond the PDF conference held last month in Amsterdam. Social scientists are busy discussing the way academics and professionals can and should communicate effectively, as Kristina wrote recently. Jason Priem describes his vision for the future of publishing here, and Martin Fenner responds here with some caveats.  As for Eisen, his vision involves “devaluing assessment made at the time of publication”. In other words, reviewers would check only that the work is sound, not that it’s important. Let history be the judge of what actually ended up making a great impact.

The greatest surprise for me in reading about this topic was how many great alternatives to traditional publishing are already available, and how few of them have been widely adopted. It turns out that scientists are quite conservative when it comes to adopting these new technologies, despite the fact that a huge majority of scientists are socially and politically left-leaning, and we work with advanced technology in our own fields on a daily basis.  When it comes to our social structures and the way we interact professionally, change tends to be glacially slow. So what can we do about it? Do you have any ideas for how to accelerate change in the world of science publishing? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wondering what open access journals are available in your field? See the Directory of Open Access Journals for a comprehensive list.

Cross-posted from Berkeley Science Review, a graduate student-run magazine that highlights scientific research taking place at UC Berkeley.