19 December 2011

Occupy Science (the journal)

Rants against scientific publishers, like this one, are always popular. But the landscape for scientific journals and publications has been slow to move. Some might argue that publishers have barely budged, though we certainly have many more open access options now than we used to.

Perhaps one reason that the scenery has been slow to change is that the targets have been too many and too varied. Maybe it’s time to try something more... precise.

An obstacle to making open access the way to publish science is that there are no open access journals that have the impact and prestige of the glamour mags: Nature, Science, and Cell.

While open access advocates often say that one of the benefits of publishing in an open access forum is that more people will read the paper, the glamour mags are effective at pushing a story out. Papers in these journals get noticed. Namnezia wrote:

Whenever we’ve published in a fancy journal, I typically start getting random emails from people who read the paper and had questions or were interested in collaborating, etc. This never happens with society journals.

And to some degree, this is to be expected. You can’t establish credibility overnight. You can't establish prestige overnight. You can’t get the entire established science journalism ecosystem to shift overnight. Some have tried to create open access journals and push them into that league (e.g., PLoS Biology). While those have been credible and commendable efforts, nothing’s come close yet. The routine of embargoes and press releases every week from a few select sources is deeply entrenched.

Few researchers with a sexy result that they think could make it into those venues will have the courage of their convictions to withhold a hot manuscript from those journals because they’re not open access.

Instead of imitating the glamour mags, why not infiltrate one?

Nature is published by Nature Publishing Group, which is part of Macmillan Publishers. Cell is published by Cell Press, which is part of Elsevier. Both of those are for-profit corporations.

Science is different. It’s a publication of a non-profit scientific society. As such, it exists to serve its members and is not concerned about making money. If enough people joined AAAS and demanded Science move to an open access model, how could the organization refuse? If enough people showed up at the annual meeting and said at every opportunity, “Make Science open access!” why couldn’t this get on to the society’s agenda?

For that matter, AAAS has a whole series of elected officer positions. People running for those positions could say, “I’ll be an advocate for making Science open access.” Might gain more votes, might not, but again, it would shift the agenda.

I’m not even saying the whole journal need to go open access. All the news and reporting and analysis and commentary that makes up a big part of the journal could stay behind a paywall. Just make the original technical articles freely available.

Science seems rife for take-over. All it would take, it seems to me, would be people joining the society and telling the officers and board of directors. The psychological effect of one of the biggest scientific journals in the world changing to open access publicly would be huge.

Now tell me why I’m wrong and this can’t work. Because it seems so simple to me that there must be something I’ve overlooked.

Additional: This article makes a point similar to mine: 

(T)he (Open Access) movement is disorganised and because of that is ineffective.


neuromusic said...

AAAS "is not concerned about making money"? Wrong. Even non-profits need revenue.

And the org's 990 from 2009 indicates that over half of its revenue comes from Science magazine. ($46 million of a $86 million budget).

Would it be possible to infiltrate? Yes, if you can figure out a way to bring in the revenue that will be lost by going open access (not sure what fraction of that $46m comes from subscriptions vs adverts).

Science is equally out-of-touch, though. In 2001, the Editor-in-Chief sent out an appeal noting the lost revenue due to (a) expanding institutional licenses for online content and (b) open content after 12 mos. His request of Society members? Don't stop buying the print version.


I like the idea, though. I don't think there is any absolute reason why it couldn't work. But even with a non-profit, you gotta find a way to have a revenue stream.

Zen Faulkes said...

Thanks for your comment. You're absolutely correct; I overstated the money issue. And yes, scientific societies, especially big ones, are often behind the times.

But there should be a difference in mindset, and responsiveness, of a corporate publisher and a scientific society. And given those options, a journal from a society should be a softer target.

neuromusic said...

I think you are totally right, though, that AAAS and Science would be good place to start... their NGO status and primary mission of "advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association" makes them an ideal candidate for establishing an OA standard.

Anonymous said...

Great idea!

neuromusic said...

So it looks like roughly half of the revenue for the mag comes from subscriptions...

Science has retained a solid advertising base in an era of declining print revenues. While income from subscriptions has increased relative to ad revenue in recent years, close to 40 percent of revenue still comes from advertising, down from a little more than 50 percent a few years ago, according to Beth Rosner, publisher of Science.

So we need to make up approx $25,000,000 per year, though going OA could increase ad revenues a bit.