Monday, March 06, 2006

Open access

"Open access" is a movement in science publishing that's been driven by a few visionaries/mavericks (depending on your perspective) for a good 5 years now. The movement's goals are simple. Scientists publish research funded by the taxpayer, yet publishers make people pay to read it (via their journals or websites). "Information wants to be free", to borrow the title of Meredith the librarian's weblog. The open access movement takes varied forms. There are now several online journals publishing free access science. At the moment, they don't get the very top papers submitted, because the main journals have "impact factors" (IF, calculated by an equation driven by the number of times a paper has been cited over the past two years). Although the top papers are "authored" by star scientists, the actual work is done by postdoctoral researchers without tenure, who need the IF for their future employment. When these new journals have impact factors, it will be interesting to see whether they pick up the top papers, if they are still in business by then. Various "conventional" publishers offer open access - either via a dedicated publication, such as my own Nature Publishing Group's online journal "Molecular Systems Biology", where authors pay to publish and it is free to read the content. Other publishers, such as Springer, offer authors a choice: upon acceptance for publication they can pay $3,000 to be open access (no reader restrictions) or not pay and be subscription-access. The problem for the open access movement is that these initiatives are not actually very popular with most authors. Some funders now, notably the US National Institutes of Health and the UK Wellcome Foundation, between them supporting most of the world's biomedical research, "encourage" scientists whom they fund to deposit their articles (upon acceptance for publication) into their own custom-built (free access of course) online archive. Take-up is not great, so the funder either has to make deposition mandatory, or rely on the publisher to do it for them. Similarly, institutions such as universities are now insisting that employees deposit copies of all publications in an online archive -- note "insisting". Author surveys by independent organisations also reveal this lack of interest or awareness among authors in "freeing" the information in their publications so that anyone can read it. I wonder where it will all lead. Google Scholar will be a big factor, though of course it does not make texts available if they are behind publishers' subscription walls. I think the solution will have to be automatic or very easy so far as the authors themselves are concerned, or they won't play. (Just as they don't play when one looks at the vast quantity of redundant output by the global scientific community of researchers and publishers -- if fewer papers were written then scientific trends would be clearer to those very taxpayers the open-access movement says it represents, who are currently in the position of needing a veritable army of journalists and other pundits to separate the signal from the noise.) One man, Richard Poynder, set out to write a book about all of this. His angle, and it is a good one, is to interview all the main drivers of the various types of open access publishing, and look to see if any consistent themes emerge. I am not so sure about the second part of his goal, but certainly the characters involved are interesting and highly individualised people -- or at least the ones I have read or interacted with -- Stevan Harnad, Harold Varmus, Cory Doctrow et al. I would be most agog to see if any common theme could emerge from the group of people Richard lists. The book did not get off the ground, and Richard writes a very entertaining and telling post as to why. He's finally found a way to do it, online of course, and I look forward to reading it (especially as he has found a way to avoid interviewing "the suits" who, as he says, have entrenched as well as boring perspectives). The posting is particularly good about how hard it is to contact the right people, both to pitch the book idea and the subjects for it. I feel for him! The responses Richard received from potential publishers do epitomise many of the articles and postings I've been reading over the past few days (on Mediabistro, the Publishing Contrarian, Grumpy old Bookman and so on) about the publishing industry. Come on, guys, get your act together! Can't you recognise an interesting pitch when you read one? Why are you publishing dross like Kylie Minogue's poems for children when you could be publishing this kind of stuff?* But Richard also demonstrates one of the basic problems with "open" access in all its forms. How can it be made sustainable? I am an editor myself, and I see how much money and resources a top journal invests in publishing a paper. It costs a lot -- and I mean a lot. For example, we employ a lot of highly trained people to reject the 90 per cent of papers we reject (odd but true), so that the 10 per cent we do publish are, from the readers' perspective, the cream of the world's scientific research. It doesn't come cheap. A one-off cost by an author of a couple of thousand dollars is not going to cut it. There is also this endearingly naive view "out there" that web publishing is somehow free, quick and simple . Take it from me, it ain't so. (If I had a penny for every author who contacted our office after publication to ask us to add in a middle initial to their surname becuase they did not notice it on proof, "just on the online version of the paper", I would be a rich woman.) To return to my point, which is how to sustain open-access publishing. Here is Richard, writing about it but not exactly getting very far with the various publishers who might publish his book. His solution is well worth reading about at the posting I've bookmarked here, but here's the nub: "If after reading the interview people believe it is sufficiently interesting to warrant it, I invite them to make a small voluntary contribution to my PayPal account. (Link to his paypal account removed by Petrona!) If they choose not make a contribution, that's fine too. The interviews will be published under a "some rights reserved" creative commons licence, and no one will have to pay anything if they don't wish to.Of course, I don't know if anyone will pay, but I am hopeful some will." Yes, that's just the problem with making information free. Who is going to pay for it -- not just to write it but to curate it so it stays available? That costs. But good luck to Richard, his writing is good to read. I hope he makes it and doesn't end up starving in a garret. *This is a rhetorical question.