The Ecological Society of America drew attention to itself last week for a statement regarding open access for scientific publication. Jonathan Eisen covered it here.
I posted the link to Eisen’s post this on ESA’s Facebook page, and today, there was this comment from ESA on Facebook:
ESA’s recent letter in response to OSTP’s Request for Information has generated discussion in the social media realm. This is perhaps a good example of the inherent conflict between the interests of those who believe research publications should make their content freely available to all and the reality that there are significant costs associated with publishing scholarly research journals. This topic will continue to be one with which the scientific community must grapple and one that will continue to evolve.
My response was that they seemed to be confusing “access” with “profit.” PLoS ONE has proved that open access journals can be profitable. Other publishers (Brill; see here) have recognized this.
If journals are worried about losing their subscriptions, I suggest this: Keep the technical articles free and print other, original content that people will pay for.
For instance, let’s go back the the journal Science, which I suggested would be a good target to convert open access. Only a small fraction of the original technical articles in Science are going to be relevant to any particular reader. As it stands, a subscriber to Science is getting a lot of non-targeted articles that are irrelevant to them.
What Science has been really good at is providing news and commentary. That is much more widely relevant to a broader spectrum of readers. I think if all the technical articles were still free, people would probably still be willing to pay money for all the other original writing. The conference reports, the policy analysis, and so on. That original work by professional writers is something that people realize should not be free. At least, the arguments for making it free are different than the usual ones used to justify open access, that is that publicly funded scientists are doing all of the intellectual work.
But oddly, the tendency for general journals has been to do the exact opposite. Journals have tended to make a few of their comments freely available, while locking down all the original science.
So, ESA, if you want people to stay members of your society, to give them reasons to do so besides original journal articles. I doubt it’s the main reason that most people join scientific societies. In fact, ESA, you yourself have surveyed why people joined your society.
The number one reason given in a membership survey for joining ESA was, “Supporting the field of ecology.” For young members, under the age of 35, “opportunities to present or publish my work” was third in the list but that’s difficult to interpret because it includes presenting at conferences and not just the journals. Regardless, it’s not just for the journals you publish.
When they asked lapsed members what might make them rejoin the society, the three main reasons were for information and career development. These were things that require more than just original journal articles. For example, the first item on the list was, “Help me stay abreast of developments in my field.” Sure, that is something that is partly about original research, but good original analysis and news reporting would also seem to be valuable to members. Why not give it to them?
ESA. 2012. ESA membership survey, February 2011 summary of results Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 93(1): 13-23. DOI: 10.1890/0012-9623-93.1.13