29 April 2024

Open access: What is a paper for, anyway?

Brian McGill at Dynamic Ecology blog has an interesting overview of publishing trends. The paragraph that seems to have gotten the most traction is this one: 

Open access has been a disaster. Scientists never really wanted it. We have ended up here for two reasons. First, pipe dreaming academics who believed in the mirage of “Diamond OA” (nobody pays and it is free to publish). Guess what – publishing a paper costs money – $500-$2000 depending on how much it is subsidized by volunteer scientists. We don’t really want Bill Gates etc. to pay for diamond OA. And universities and especially libraries are already overextended. There is no free publishing. The second and, in my opinion most to blame, are the European science grant funders who banded together and came up with Plan S and other schemes to force their scientists to only publish OA. At least in Europe the funding agencies mostly held scientists harmless by paying, and because of the captive audience, publishers went to European countries first for Read and Publish agreements. So European scientists haven’t been hurt too badly. But North America has so far refused to go down the same path, leaving North American scientists without grants (a majority of them) with an ever shrinking pool of subscription-based journals to publish in. And scientists from less rich countries are hurt even worse. Let’s get honest. How long before every university in Africa is covered by a Read and Publish agreement from the for profit companies?

What is interesting about this assessment is that he calls the open access situation a “disaster” on the basis of one very narrow measure: “How does it affect writing scientists?” By “writing scientists,” I mean what are usually called “principle investigators” (PIs), faculty who are busy running a lab and need publications for career advancement.

Two things.

First, most of the paragraph is concerned about how article processing charges affect scientists without grants who need to publish. I emphasize “charges” because, as I have said before, we need to separate open access – a description of who can read scientific articles – from the business models used to support open access. McGill is complaining about the latter, and isn’t addressing the former.

I do agree that many researchers have unrealistic expectations about the costs of publication. I agree that there has not been enough discussion about alternative business models for open access.

Second, journal articles do not just exist merely for the benefit of scientists who need publications to get promotion or tenure. There are not only people who write articles, there are people who read journal articles. You should consider the sizable benefits of more people being able to read scientific papers before judging the success of open access.

Article processing charges do create barriers for researchers with limited resources. But the research of hypothetical African scientists is impeded by not being able to read the scientific literature, not just by being unable to publish in the scientific literature.

If we are concerned about African researcher not being able to pay article processing charges, should we not also be concerned about African researchers being able to buy journal articles or African research libraries being able to buy journal subscriptions?

I see increased ability to read the world’s scholarly literature as a good thing. I don’t see it as an unalloyed good that must be pursued above all else. But it should be in the mix as we’re taking stock of open access.

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