Thursday, 27 August 2015

On open access

I’ve been meaning to write something about open access (OA) for some time and I do genuinely believe that true OA is a worthwhile (and achievable) ideal. This blog post is not intended as a critique of OA although I will suggest that its advocates do need to think a bit more carefully about how they present the benefits. I'll be writing from the perspective of authors of scientific journal articles and disclose, in the interests of openness, that all but one of my publications have been in paywall journals. One general observation that I will make is that the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude of some OA advocates (who may occasionally avail themselves of the advantages of publishing in paywall journals) does tend to grate at times.  Although there is actually a lot more to OA than who pays for journal articles to be published, I'll not be discussing those issues in this post. The principal theme of this post is that it may be helpful for those who opine loudly on the benefits of OA to take a more author-centric look at the relevant issues and this is especially important for those advocates whose contributions to the scientific literature have been modest.  

One of my gripes is that OA is sometimes equated with open science and I believe that the openness of science is actually a much bigger issue than who pays for scientific articles to be published in journals. Drug discovery research is my primary focus and a certain amount of what (we think that) we know in this field comes from analysis of proprietary databases.  Some of this analysis falls short of what one might feel entitled to expect from journals that would describe themselves as premier journals and you’ll find some examples in this presentation.  I have argued here and here that studies of this genre would actually pack a much heavier punch if the data was made publicly available. However, it is not only datasets that are undisclosed in drug discovery papers.  In some cases, models built from the data are not disclosed either (this does not inhibit authors from comparing their models favorably with previously published models). If the science in a data modelling study is to be accurately described as open then the data and models associated with the study have to be disclosed. This is not just an issue for paywall journals and the models described in the following OA articles do not appear to be fully disclosed:


The point that I'm making here is that a the science in a paywall journal is not necessarily less open than that in an OA journal. In my view, the openness of the science presented in a journal article is determined by how much its authors disclose rather than whether or not one needs to pay to read the article. It's also worth remembering that internet access is not free.

This is a good point to say say something about the economics of publishing articles in scientific journals. In economic terms, a journal article represents a service that the journal has provided for the author rather than the other way round (which many would regard as more sensible).  The author typically pays for the service by either signing over rights to paywall journal or by paying an article processing charge (APC) to a journal (OA or paywall) which means that the article can be freely viewed online and rights are (hopefully) retained by the author.  I need to note that not all OA journals levy APCs and, in these cases, it's a good idea to check how the journal is funded and whether or not articles are peer-reviewed. Payment of an APC implies that the journal article is technically an advertisement and this has interesting (and potentially even troubling) implications if the journal also publishes conventional advertisements. All articles in a paywall journal are usually considered (e.g. by download cost) to be of equal value and this is one of the bigger fictions in the scholarly publishing business.  The situation becomes more complicated with OA journals because the APC may vary with geographical region or be waived completely for some individuals. In the interest of openness and accountability, shouldn't open access journals disclose the actual APC paid for each article published?

There are compelling arguments that can be made in support of OA and, like many, I believe that the results of publicly-funded research should be fully visible to the public. This is probably a good point at which to raise the question of who should own intellectual property generated by publicly-funded research. OA broadens participation (by citizen scientists and emerging scientific communities in developing countries) and increases the likelihood of a study being read (and used) by the people with the most interest in it. OA greatly facilitates mining of the ever-expanding body of published literature which adds to its value and, unsurprisingly, some of the loudest voices calling for scientific literature to be made public property are those of informaticians and data scientists.  One question that OA advocates need to address is whether the results of mining and analysis of freely available literature should also be considered to be public property. While a strong and coherent case can be made for OA, it might not be such a great idea to invoke morality (can get a bit subjective) or fundamental human rights (people under siege in Syria might consider it less than tasteful that their suffering is being equated with their inability to access the latest articles in Nature).

There are a few hurdles that will need to be overcome if OA vision is to translate to OA reality. Advocates for OA typically demonize the paywall journals although the cynic might note that easily-recognized enemies are needed by the leaders of mass movements in order to galvanize the proletariat. Some declare that they will only review manuscripts for open access journals while others assert that they are boycotting Nature and Science (I scarcely dare to think of the mirth of that would result from me announcing to colleagues that I will no longer be submitting manuscripts to Nature). While demonizing paywall journals may make people feel good (and righteous), it misses the essential point that the OA movement needs to win hearts and minds so that authors (the creators of content) come to see OA journals as the most attractive option for publishing their studies.  Put more bluntly, authors are as at least as much to 'blame' as the journals for their articles 'disappearing' behind paywalls. It's also worth remembering that journal editors are also usually authors as are the people on academic hiring committees who might use journal impact factor to to decide that one research output of one applicant is worth more than that of another applicant.

One nettle that the OA movement does need to grasp is that journal publishing is frequently a business and, from the perspective of the 'customer', the terms 'paywall' and 'open access' simply describe alternative business models.  I'm certainly not saying that it has to be that way and there are other areas, such as the provision of health care, education and religion, where the case could be made for the exclusion of commercial activity.  However, the issue remains and, like or not, the OA movement is effectively lobbying in favor of one set of commercial interests over another set of commercial interests. This means that OA advocates need to be clear (and open) about the sources of any funding that should come their way.  The other nettle that the OA movement needs to grasp is that it should be very careful about whom it allows to speak on its behalf.  OA propaganda sometimes takes the form 'open access good, paywall bad' and the message loses some of its bite if it turns out that Napoleon has been publishing in Nature while denouncing Beall's List as reactionary and counter-revolutionary.

So let's take a look at OA from the perspective of a scientist who is trying to decide where to send a manuscript.  Typically the decision will be made by the principal investigator (PI) who will be well aware that funding and, if relevant, tenure decisions will be influenced by which journals in which the PI's articles have been published.  In some areas (e.g. biomedical), academic research is particularly competitive and PIs are well aware that an article published in an elite journal is visible to the PI's peers and all those who will be making decisions about the PI's future.  As such, publishing in an OA journal can represent a risk without compensating benefits (in competitive academic science, knowing that everybody on the planet can see your article fits into the 'nice to have' category). Another factor that inhibits authors from publishing in OA journals is the paucity of options in some disciplines (e.g. chemistry). I don't believe that there is currently a credible OA equivalent to Journal of Medicinal Chemistry and would be concerned about the ability of a general purpose OA journal to identify and recruit specialist reviewers. I'm not a computational biologist but, if I were, I'd definitlely be thinking twice about submitting an article to a computational biology journal that published Ten Simple Rules of Live Tweeting at Scientific ConferencesFinally there is the issue of cost because publishing in OA journals (or paying for OA in a paywall journal) does not usually come cheap and, in some cases, funding needs to be specifically sourced (as opposed to simply paying out of one's grant). Those scientists for whom the APC represents a significant expense will also be aware that they are effectively subsidizing other scientists for whom the APC has been waived. Something that may be going through the mind of more than one scientist is the direction in which APCs might head should all scientific publishing be forced to adopt an OA business model.

I think this is a good point at which to wrap things up and I should thank you for staying with me.  If you're an OA opponent and had been hoping to see OA skewered then please accept my apologies for having disappointed you. If you're an OA supporter, you may well disagree with many (or all) of the points that I've raised. If, however, something in this post has prompted you to think about things from a different angle then it will have achieved its purpose.