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Happy open access week 2011


For those not in the know about open access publishing (and if you are not, you may want to stop reading now unless you have insomnia) it is the idea that Science papers, when published, should be freely available to all. Not, as in the current (albeit changing) system whereby Scientists can publish for free, but to read the article individuals (or their institutions) need an extremely expensive subscription. This has a number of ethical problems, including how fair it is on scientists in developing countries (who do however usually get a vastly reduced subscription cost), and that given that tax payers’ money pays for a large portion of scientific research: shouldn’t it be available to… well… taxpayers?

This video provides a cute, humorous and interesting summary of the situation.

Now, herein lies the rub. I am not sure I fully support 100% open access publishing, whereby the scientist pays to publish their article, and it is freely available to all.

*ducks for cover*

Why am I admitting this? Because I want my young upstart forward thinking friends to correct me. Please: write me angry comments, throw things at me in the streets, steal my first-born. OK, not the latter, but you get the picture. I feel I should really whole-heartedly support open access publishing. Most people whom I really respect do… my mentor David Allison is usually up for a good debate about most topics, but unless I have utterly mistaken his stance (and this does happen): he is unequivocal that open access publishing is, and must be, the way forward.

And I get some of the reasons why. I do. I get the moral arguments above. I get that a lot of Science is ‘held back’ because journals are constantly looking for the newest and brightest Science to up their impact factors – less impactful Science, or worse still: newer, potentially ground-breaking innovative Science is held back so journals can publish the safer, yet newer findings. We miss out on null results and replication, we miss out on high risk high reward data. It is a problem, yes.

PLoS was one of the first publishing houses to address this. The history goes something like: they started with the PloS journals which were very selective. One of the editors noticed they were rejecting a lot of sound, well conducted Science, because it wasn’t high impact enough (i.e. would not be cited enough). So, he started PloS ONE. PLoS ONE would accept all Science, as long as it was methodologically sound, and well presented. To facilitate this, there would be no page limits and no printing charges: everything would be online, and get this: open access. Anyone and everyone could read it. Trust me, it was groundbreaking in itself, at the time. However, this would not be at the expense of good Science: the peer-review process would still be thorough and fair.

As David puts it: the onus became on the reader to judge the utility of the Science, by citing it in their research papers, not on some editor, or some (often postdoc) reviewer. Great papers would be often cited; less great ones, not. And that was OK. Let the scientific community judge the Science, not a handful of nameless individuals.

So, why wouldn’t I support such a thing? Well, it’s not so much that I don’t support it in principle. It is just that I am an old fuddy-duddy (grand ole age of 30 doncha know) and am not sure how it will work. At the moment, there are several journals, organized roughly into subject area, which are ‘tiered’ by their impact factor. Of course, each journal has an editor (s/he who hold the fate of your paper in his/er hands, indeed) and this editor puts in a lot a  lot a lot of hours to keep this system going. Why does the editor do it? 2 reasons would be my guess:

1) Cold, hard cash

2) Cache – being the editor of a top rated journal is a great thing on the CV. Even better: taking a journal and improving it.

Now, let’s imagine that, effectively, impact factors go out of the window as we start to publish all sound Science. Who is going to edit a journal? Who is going to review hundreds of reviews and make decisions? There is going to be no benchmark to say “you did a great job” – and, at the moment, editors can comfort the thought that they are selecting and publishing high quality Science. They can say ‘hey – I believed in this high impact paper and got it out there’  I.e. they are advancing the subject they fell in love with so much in the first place. If these papers would get published anyway, as we are publishing all sound Science, what is going to motivate editors?

Then start to think: we would no longer need tiered journals, right? Which would be nice, as people would not have to go through the process of shopping papers around, which can be frustrating and takes months. (Or years in the case of one of my current papers. I never give up). So – just one big journal for obesity then. Or in the case of PloS ONE – no subject areas. So, the submissions are going to exponentially increase – who is going to wade through them?

I guess someone might do it for the money… but then I doubt this is going to be a top PI, right? They could just make more consulting. So will it fall to postdocs / junior faculty who want the minor CV boost it might offer? Then how will they train? Are there not already enough demands on the time of early career scientists, who should be focusing on building up independent research? I personally think the peer review system is suffering from the amount of journals. I understand, anecdotally, that being a reviewer for a journal used to be quite an impressive thing. Then there were way more journals, and way more papers, and so they started involving less experienced scientists and now it really doesn’t mean much to review papers: I review for some 42 journals regularly (yes.. it takes A LOT of time, and this is the one of the banes of being inter-disciplinary). So, high up PI are less likely to want to review, as it means nothing (and I have been told before ‘don’t suggest that person… they are too high up… they don’t review much anymore). In my opinion, the quality of review has gone down. Or at least become more variable. With, it seems, the exception of the highest journals. Come on, admit it: you submit a paper to 3 /4 high- or mid- level journals. They all say ‘this is fundamentally flawed’ and people do (and I was once one of them) think ‘OK, I’ll just stick it here, and get it out’. Because you can, because you need a publication, because you don’t want to waste your time, because you don’t like to be wrong, because you were so invested in it, because your next year’s contract depends on it, because you want a grant, because you want your supervisor to like you. Whatever. Bias in writing doesn’t only come from industry* .

So… I think it is highly plausible that the quality of published Science will go down. And more worryingly, I have some other concerns:

-How will we prevent circular epidemiology? If we are publishing everything, without a judgement on impact, or novelty, will hundreds of unnecessary replications get published? Or ‘This has been done is whites… Hispanics… African-Americans… Africans and Asians… but not those from Honolulu! I have done it specifically on Honolulu-ans! This must be known!”

-I think it will be easier to publish. I think it will be easier for early career scientists to publish, as they can take simpler concepts and bash out papers. So, will this hold them back from examining longer term, more risky, more complex ideas that might not play out, if the average CV has a lot of pubs on?

-Who is going to pay? Individuals? Then where are early career scientists going to get the money? What about papers written ‘off grant’? Yes, you can ask for publication monies in your grant, but what about after the grant when all leftovers have been returned? I was originally all for Universities paying a fee to cover all submissions, but then what about those in developing countries? Waive the fee? Isn’t that what we could do anyway with subscription costs?

I don’t know. I want to be all about Open Access, but I don’t know how it will play out. I am not convinced overall, it is the best model for Science. It is said that Americans leap on new ideas with vigour and passion, and Europeans sit back and watch them unfold, so maybe that it is. Or maybe I need to slapped upside the head by the friends and given a stern talking to (you know who you are). In the meantime, here is a very positive article about the process:


*I am, by the way, very interested in writing about other biases in Science (non industry), such as those laid out above. Contact me if you are interested in working on this.