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What’s wrong with Open Access?

February 9, 2014

Scientific publishing used to follow its own business model. Authors wrote for the prestige and publicity, and peer reviewed their colleagues’ work voluntarily, and journals made money by selling subscriptions. It worked because scientists are paid from other sources, but it led to a lot of unread rubbish. Lack of access was hardly an issue because libraries let the occasional poor scholar in free.

Then came the internet. Scholars from well-funded universities read most articles for free on their computers but noticed when they occasionally got charged. Less privileged ones suffered because libraries reduced paper copy holdings and electronic access was never given away. Lefties complained about academic publishers excessive profits.

The problems were soluble. Publishers soon made articles freely available after an interval, and various aid agencies paid for access for reputable scholars from poor countries. Even the excessive profits soon disappeared as the internet lowered publishers’ barriers to entry.

But the clamour for scientific publishing to be made free remained.  Why should the taxpayer who had funded the research have to pay for the results? What about poor researchers? We want Open Access!

But even articles submitted for free, cost money to publish. They need editing and formatting, and figures need redrawing. Someone has to chase up peer reviewers.  Editors want honorariums and expense account meetings.  Under Open Access the author pays for all this.

Privileged researchers charge the fees to their institutions or research funders, and less privileged ones still put their hands in their pockets. Publishers still make money. But the editorial incentive to reject rubbish has receded – let’s publish and claim a fee. Authors have less incentive to write good stuff. Even a fee of $500 or $1,000 is money well spent if the paper gets you promotion. We now have mega-tons of rubbish science.

But it’s all electronic now, and no-one need read it. Google will sift out the good stuff.  So maybe it’s all for the best.

Jim Thornton

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