Mandating open access science publishing

Suzy Khimm writes:

Taxpayers fund a ton of government research — and the results can get stuck behind a paywall that tops $20,000. Should they be able to see them without paying a second time around?

It sounds like a reasonable argument, but scientific journals make the counterargument that they add essential value to published research via their editorial and publication process, and thus they need subscription fees to stay in business.

The red herring in all of this is that the best argument for open access is that the public pays for research and thus deserves access. That is in fact not the best argument, because most of the technical articles published in scientific journals are of little utility to members of the general public, and generally those who can parse the technical articles can get access with the minor inconvenience of going to the local university library. (In the case of news organizations large enough to hire science journalists, they should be able to pay for subscriptions to the top tier journals.)

A better argument for mandating open access is that it’s better for science and the scientific community. Open access is a feature that primarily benefits scientists. Predatory and exploitative business models by some journal publishers (cough, Elsevier!, cough) place huge financial burdens on your average university library, which has to pay for its subscriptions in part via indirect costs contributed by federally funded grants. In some cases, it seems to have reached the point where some journal publishers are charging much more for their journals than the value they add, an economically inefficient practice known as ‘extracting rents.’

Journal publishers, especially in the very large biomedical community, do add value, without question – by supervising the peer review process (although the peer-reviewers themselves are unpaid volunteers), by copyediting and publishing, and, very importantly, by performing an initial screening of submitted papers. Journals like Science and Nature add value by coupling their technical articles with magazine features, making these among the few journals that are worth a personal subscription.

So why is open access good? My experience is that it is because its a very practical way to distribute manuscripts among scientists, making it easier to post manuscripts on lab web pages, to post links to papers on blogs that are read by scientists or science savvy readers.

The current NIH compromise seems like a good one – manuscripts are required to be deposited at Pub Med Central after six months. Under this model, journals that have a reasonable price/value ratio should still get subscriptions, while overpriced bottom-feeders should disappear and cease cluttering up PubMed with useless verbiage.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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