Open Access…or Free Access?

Well, recently Elsevier added another chapter to their ongoing saga of how little they value the people who generate all their income: they added a new layer of prohibitions on “green” open access versions of journal articles. This has the Open Access community up in arms…but then, they have noticed that Elsevier is fundamentally the Evil Empire crossed with a cable company, no? I mean, they bundle a lot of crappy journals in with the few that anybody would pay for in order to avoid real ala carte payments and also to be able to claim high circulation on their crappy journals. (Why does anybody keep publishing with these guys?  ANY Open Access advocate who publishes in Elsevier should question their own stance).

Anyways, the thing that gets the Grumpy Geophysicist’s goat is that when you see the high dudgeon that Open Access advocates get into over this, you get the distinct impression that (1) all research is publicly supported, (2) all research should be free to publish and freely available and (3) publishers provide no value. Arguably all these are in error.

Take the position that research is publicly funded.  Yes, this is true for a lot of it, but believe it or not there are scientists working in industry who are allowed to publish scientific articles.  A lot of seismic digital signal processing came out of industry.  That this stuff makes it out at all is amazing.  And then there is research that is unsupported or supported by small internal grants, senior theses and summer research by faculty at four year schools. Not supported by the public.

And just how free should stuff be? Journals from places like Elsevier think the reader should pay; many society journals think that the author should pay, but is it possible for nobodyto pay? Well, no.  While it is true that in general editing and reviewing are done by scientists as part of their day job (or out of the kindness of their heart), journals have support staff who are paid; these people keep the website that accepts manuscripts from authors and distributes manuscripts to editors and reviewers working, they deal with copy editing, they deal with reconfiguring the stuff an author provides so it looks nice. And they pay for the web server to keep that manuscript available for a long time.  In theory, they also are taking on the task up migrating their archive to new formats, should that become necessary. All this costs money: maybe not to the level needed for dead tree journals, but this isn’t free. So, if the reader pays nothing, the author has to pay.  And that barrier will reduce some stuff from getting submitted…

The idea that all journal articles post-review should be immediately eligible for Green Open Access seems to miss two points.  One, noted above, is that there is a cost even before reformatting for the journal. It isn’t like the author emailed the paper to the editor, who then emailed it to some buddies to review. There is some stuff there to help make sure the author provided what was needed and some stuff to help the editor find reviewers and for the reviewers to provide their response, etc.  The second presumption is that there is no value added after review is complete.  Now this might be almost true for some journals (hey, AGU, did you guys fire all the copy editors?), in many cases there are things that get fixed in the copy editing and formatting stage of creating a journal article.  Does this change the fundamental meaning of the article? We’d hope not, but it is possible that at such a stage that an error in an illustration might be corrected–and several retractions have originated from errors in illustrations. So the final article might have some important differences from the one that the editor accepted.

So here’s the deal.  Open Access is a nice ideal, but somebody has to pay.  Otherwise there is no permanent archive, there is no easy way to identify an article, etc. NSF recently changed their rules to forbid publication costs from carrying over more than a year from the end of a grant.  This is yet another insane rule as there are times that getting through review can take well over a year–and then what? So if NSF things Open Access is good, and Open Access costs money, then let us keep the small amounts left over for publication a little longer.

The other downside of Open Access has been the creation of an industry in Open Access journals, nearly all of which are for-profit enterprises with no real merit whatsoever.

So how will this play out in the end? The most interesting experiment might well be one conducted by the Geological Society of America, which will transition their leading journals to Gold Open Access–without (as things are planned now) changing their payment model and with that access coming when the paper is published, not years later. And not by creating a new open access journal of unknown quality. If GSA can get their model to fly, we might actually see Open Access succeed.  And, maybe, the screws will be turned on Elsevier some more, which can only be a good thing.

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4 responses to “Open Access…or Free Access?”

  1. Jⓐn Velterop (@Villavelius) says :

    For science coming out of industry, I’d argue that this is a most suitable avenue to publish:


    • cjonescu says :

      Well, good luck with that. Given that we have already seen collusion between journals to up their citation indices, peer review by endorsement looks to be a way to develop “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kinds of relationships. At least it will be public, I suppose. (If you want to really take this a step further, publish the *reviews*).


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