I was startled when a physicist said to me the other day “this open access thing is a scam.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked, thinking he probably had Jeffrey Beall’s list of pseudo-journals in mind. Beall has gotten a lot of press for his list of websites that pretend to look like journals but really aren’t. Unfortunately, too many people have gotten the impression that all open access journals are dubious since it’s often the only time they encounter the phrase “open access” in the news. Beall recently criticized two Latin American open access platforms as “favelas” that lacked the expertise and quality of commercial publishers in the north. Not surprisingly, this characterization caused some controversy.
But the physicist wasn’t talking about Beall’s list. He’s pretty smart; he wouldn't fall for a goofy-looking website that started last year and publishes dozens of journals in more disciplines than you can shake a stick at. No, he was talking about open access journals being launched by Nature and other leading science publishers. “It’s like they’ll publish stuff that gets rejected so long as you pay.” We got interrupted and I never got to the bottom of it, though I did have a chance to ask his opinion of hybrid journals – the ones that charge a subscription but will make individual articles free if you pay a fee which is often in the thousands of dollars. His response? “That’s ridiculous!” Yeah, I think so, too.
From his perspective, the open access scam wasn't shoddy "predatory" publishers (a concept that really needs to be defined more broadly than just the sites on Beall's list). It was the fact that respected journals like Science will funnel articles rejected from its highly-prestigious pages to an online mega-journal site where they can be published without further review so long as the author can spare the cash.
Put it that way, it does kind of seem like a scam.
Basically, scientists want access to scientific research and these days even a well-funded institution can’t afford all the journals where research of interest may be published. The physicist I was speaking with routinely uses arXiv, a long-running preprint server, and I’m sure he would never hesitate to send a PDF to anyone who asked. That’s why you publish, after all – to share your results. Yet if he is going to get grants, he has to publish in journals that have prestige. That those journals offer a second-class open access option for a fee looks fishy to him.
It is fishy. Commercial journals and profitable journals published by major science societies make huge profit margins and five companies control most of the market. They’re offering open access as a new business model, but in such a way that it won’t damage their established brands. They’ll take in cash to run new ventures while preserving the prestige of their most exclusive journals and their profit margins.
If a bill that a US Senate committee approved unanimously late last month actually makes it to the floor and isn’t trampled by a heard of lobbyists, research funded by federal tax dollars (like the grants this physicist relies on for most of his lab’s expenses) will be free to the public within a year of publication. The UK is further down the open access route, encouraging a model that will preserve existing publishing businesses through generous author-side fees. The future must be open, if we want minds to be open, and in time we’ll figure out a better way to share research results that doesn’t involve paywalls, high author-side fees, and excessive corporate profits.
I’m convinced this is doable if scientists and the public have a say in how we'll make it work. But to get there, we can't sit back and let the big publishers define the future.