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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Open access vs Paid access in scientific literature: Can there be a middle ground?

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Recently Prof. Michael Eisen, the founder of PLOS One and an open-access science-publishing evangelist, made a rather startling revelation in his blog post[1] as to why he, as a founder of such a model, is seeing the merit in reverting back to the paid-access model; and admiring the haloed halls of big names in scientific publishing like Nature, Science and Cell.  YES! He made an April Fool's prank and made me bite into it !#%$ :D. Jokes apart, the article did tend to bring about the whole issue of access to scientific literature and the business model (yes there is one!) surrounding it.

To aspiring scientists and researchers, getting access to published paper simplistically relied on the institution where they worked. Who cared who paid for it, right? Well! As we all know there is no free lunch. But then, it leads us into the whole thing behind the rising costs imposed by the publishing houses, their conventional stronghold and the whole movement that led to the current level of open-access publishing. It’s a long discussion and I would leave that to the discussion in the comments below. Yet I can try to summarize it.

Frankly, this is a very touchy issue. The ecosystem of access to published literature and scientific publishing is not the same as it was back in the day. Biol. Abstracts/Chem. Abstracts/Current contents anyone? Someone paid for it and it was a painstaking process to spend long hours in the library. Today, a personal computer in the lab and access to Pubmed and Internet has changed everything.

I got a chance to understand scientific publishing early on when I tried to start a concept journal at Georgetown University. In the process, I quickly gathered the rudiments of the world of scientific publishing, the major publishing houses and the way scientific world blissfully, yet precariously, hinged upon. I was seeing the growing wave of open access publishing and had my own points to grind. I realized a few important things

  • It cost to publish. Even in an online world somebody had to maintain the servers and 24/7 accessibility. This is besides the cost to maintain the editorial team to maintain a semblance of presentation and readability.
  • The peer-review system was paid nil. Yes! Nobody ever realizes that they form the bedrock behind the whole edifice of scientific publishing. Even being an editor was not so financially rewarding. Tell me how many of us have been paid by a journal for peer-reviewing (besides having an ego trip). Even being an Editor has not been such a financially rewarding one for many.
  • Yet, it also cost the institutions their arm and leg to have institutional access to haloed publishing names. Not every University or research institution could have access to major journals. So, if a post-doc from an under-funded institution could not access a paper, he had to suffice with the ‘abstract’ from Pubmed and make his argument. So much for integrity in scientific publishing.
  • Internet publishing was beginning to boom and driving down the costs of publishing. Suddenly every academic could dream of being a self-appointed ‘Editor’.

  • So this kind of laid the basis behind the open-access movement and its evangelists. With the boom of internet and cheap publishing online, every wannabe had to be an open-access. Just borrow some server space and quickly assemble an editorial board (easy right!). After all, many languishing academics are waiting there. Peer-review system got killed. They were always the unpaid yet overworked group while being the most crucial in the line of defense against biased work. Remember! Just instruments and data don't make up science paper. Evaluating the claim in the paper calls for a separate skill altogether. Speaking of which, the peer-review system has been virtually hijacked. Be it the publishing houses that keep their roster of ‘resident experts’ (who searches and maintains an unbiased panel do you think) or open-access houses which are yet to develop any standards in maintaining one. Any wonder why the general public is skeptical about any ‘scientific’ claims!

    This is a ranting that can go on. But a solution has to be worked upon. Remember a couple of crucial yet counteracting points...

  • Funded work needs to be accessed by everyone (at least affordably). Also, if it is funded by the taxpayer, then everyone should have access to it.
  • Nothing comes without a cost. OK... that was a ‘duh!’ kind of philosophical thing to say and yet so very real! Remember it also costs to maintain a good peer-review system besides sucking up the publishing costs.
  • Technology changes and will hence greatly affect the access to scientific literature

  • So where does that leave us? It is armchair logic, yet so relevant, to say develop a business model that does not bleed the underfunded labs while sustaining the publishing houses and its haloed peer-review system.

    But, it is not so hard after all. An open forum consisting of academia, publishing houses has to set open-industry standards that adapt to changing times. Whatever has happened in such a name has been closed doors and informal, and has not got us anywhere. Period. Let a discussion like this focus on these points (and ones I haven't yet brought up) rather than simplistically arguing open-access vs. paid-access. Science demands it! I am trying to keep the points crisp simply because a whole thought process gets underway.
    [1] ‘Why I, a founder of PLOS, am forsaking open access’ – Personal Blog of Prof. Michael Eisen, Univ. Berkeley –

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