Open science

There are lots of comments and editorials flying around at the moment about open access as an alternative to the traditional method of publishing academic research.

Under the traditional model, scientific papers are published in subscription-based journals. Research is conducted and written neatly into a manuscript and then submitted to a journal for publication.  Our peers perform a review of the quality of the research, working on a volunteer basis. I do a bit of reviewing and this can be hugely time consuming. In addition, the editor is usually a well-respected researcher, who is sometimes paid or sometimes working on a voluntary basis.

When the lengthy peer review process has been finished and (ideally!) the manuscript is accepted for publication, the author will often be sent an invoice for publishing costs. These can be quite substantial, with charges for colour images and excess pages rapidly becoming costly.

Once the paper has been copy-edited into a neat format specific to the journal, it is published. This is usually both online and in print format, although I don’t know anyone who still reads print editions of journals.

At this point, the article is hidden behind a paywall. University libraries often buy large packages of subscriptions, encompassing many journals and back-editions that may or may not be useful. These costs are usually unknown and subject to strict nondisclosure agreements.

Journal list prices have been rising steadily, and faster than inflation. Estimates suggest the publishers’ profit margins are roughly 20-30%.

So to summarise, the public fund a vast part of academic research through government research grants, through which we are paid to do research. We then pay to publish, volunteer our time to the publishers as reviewers and then have to pay read each other’s research. And too bad if you don’t have a library subscription to read the outcomes of publically funded research!

Recently, there has been increasing discussion of open access publication, with some arguing hiding taxpayers funded research behind paywalls is ‘immoral’ and advocating the open access system.

Under this system, the authors of a paper will often pay for cost of publication, which is then made publically available. The costs vary greatly from journal to journal, but can be over several thousand dollars.

In April 2012, Harvard University actively started encouraging its faculty members to make their research available freely through open access publication. This coincided with a widespread call to boycott Elsevier journals. If one of the richest universities can’t afford to support the paywall model of publication, what chance is there for those less fortunate researchers with access to comparatively impoverished libraries?

There has been a steady increase in the uptake of open access publication, particularly as various funding bodies demand that research papers based on publicly funded research should be free for all to read. A suggested benefit is that your research is more likely to be widely read and cited, than if squirrelled away behind a prohibitively expensive subscription.

Some researchers have embraced the open access model, whilst others are more cautious. Particularly, there seems to be concern amongst some early career researchers that choosing to publish in open access journals means forgoing the opportunity to publish in the prestigious, high-quality journals that build careers.

Subscription-based journals tend to argue that the costs of publication are worth it, because they maintain high quality research and do more in terms of the publication process. They select reviewers, assess reviewer reports, edit and copyedit and check for plagiarised material.

The middle ground, perhaps, is selecting an open access option within a prestigious subscription journal. My last research paper was published in this way. I (or more accurately my wealthier co-authors) paid a fee to allow my paper to be made open to anyone.

I am a supporter of open science, but it’s a tricky decision to navigate. The advice to publish in the best possible journal may be becoming antiquated as the ethics of publication creeps into our decisions.

But if we publish open access in a subscription-based journal, is that really a more ‘ethical’ decision? What if we can’t afford the publication fees for open access? And if we do support open access, should we refuse to volunteer our time to review for a subscription-based journal?

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