December 3rd, 2005 by Romeo Anghelache

Some organization (The Royal Society, henceforth TRS) has published a position paper on open-access and it’s nagging me.

TRS starts with a slow introduction aiming to put the reader in a kind of open-access state for the ideas that follow (by suggesting they are in the open-access camp, but with some nuances): TRS states that “At present, all papers appearing in Royal Society journals can be accessed free of charge 12 months after their publication”.
And the reader should be impressed? I don’t think so. The results published in those papers are funded from which source? Why should the paying public wait 12 months until the results are available for their reading? I see no reason.

Here’s a perspective on copyright and access to publicly funded research results.

Further, TRS states that “some organisations threaten to hinder rather than promote the exchange of knowledge between researchers. ”
And how comes this? Because “some participants in the debate” ( the only debate worth its name is on implementations of open-access, not on open-access as a concept) “aim to stop commercial publishers from making profits”.

Why are commercial publishers automatically entitled to make profits from charging, for access to publicly funded research, those who paid for it already? Well, they were entitled when they put some managing effort in putting that on paper (and only for that activity only), ok, but in the digital world where is their added value?

Listing the article names, authors and offering content in pdf is trivial, that can be done directly in the research institutions which are creating those results.
A webmaster or a librarian should be responsible in setting up such systems.

And there goes the traditional publisher’s glory. The publishers should earn those profits by providing some non-trivial services, I won’t tell here what kind of services, they should invest in that first.

The publishers’ profits are a hindrance to scientific exchange: the librarians can’t cope with high-priced subscriptions, so the researcher can’t relate to resources.

I personally lived in extreme conditions as a physicist researcher, due to national research policy’s stupidity and high subscription prices: I was doing research in 1990-1996 based only on articles published before 1976, or newer donations from other European libraries, that was in Romania. Based on this experience, nobody can convince me there’s something wrong with “aiming to stop publishers from making profits”.

Anyway, TRS continues by stating the obvious: “this should not be the primary factor guiding future developments in the exchange of knowledge between researchers”. It’s not the primary factor indeed, it’s the secondary factor. The primary factor is to provide access to the results, and the secondary factor is to dismantle possible ways of weakening the primary factor.
The publishers are still free to offer charge-based, alternative, value-added services to the research community, they just have to figure out which, and how to do it; meanwhile, open-access should be provided.

Further, TRS states: “Few of the proposed new models for open access publishing appear to have been properly assessed financially and shown to be sustainable”.

The current publishing model has been assessed financially and shown to be unsustainable, that’s why open-access is here. So, I can only interpret this TRS statement as a suggestion that open-access initiatives need more strategical (economical, political) support until various implementations settle to well-understood models.

I can already estimate the outcome of open-access: it’s more viable and sustainable than the traditional publishing through private publishers.

Here’s why: the expense of rendering it on paper is moved directly onto the reader computer time/printer paper (that’s the expense which was worth paying to the publishers), the expense of locating it moves onto a library server in the research institution which produced the article (finally the libraries will have a usage for researchers younger than 60), the expense of peer-reviewing stays constant: there’s no reason to believe that peer-reviewing open-access journals is costlier than closed-access journals, on the contrary, the open-access structures are more flexible in accomodating the peer-reviewing process.
And there goes the TRS statement “New models that rely on public funds to operate open access journals or repositories could even cost the public purse more overall if they operate less cost-effectively and efficiently than existing alternatives.”

Otherwise, TRS states “any viable new open access model must adequately cover the costs of high quality, independent peer review”. Now, as much as I know, the cost of peer-review is not covered by the current publishers: researchers are doing it as part of their jobs. Open-access has nothing to do with the quality of peer-review. So what’s the meaning of this request?

Open-access has two steps: free-access to self-archived works and free access to peer reviewed results. My having access to self-archived articles, wether or not they are published under peer-review, doesn’t hinder my research activity, it helps me put my work in context before some high-quality reviewer sends me to read his previously published paper of which I wasn’t aware because my library couldn’t pay the subscription.

More, TRS seems to imply that the traditional publishing model makes peer-reviewing somehow high-quality. As in anything, you get high-quality and low-quality peer-reviewing, no matter which is the publishing model.

However, the traditional peer-reviewing model has its own problems: small tribes of people can behave, anonymously, overly protective to their own works, that is, against the results of others who may surpass their current work, it’s still up to the morality of the reviewer to give an objective review. But I digress.

The fact that I have access to a self-archived article and give an informal feedback to the author is peer-review itself.

If you need formal peer-review (want it to resemble the traditional peer-review model), set up a system of online anonymous peer-reviewing, the technical mechanisms are already in place, take a peek at the blogs today (pick one and make it accesible only by e-mail, make it slow to answer, delay the messages for weeks, allow only department heads to write, make them delegate any work sent to their assistants, only by means of printed paper, set a random reminder every now and then, to thusly overworked reviewers, and you’ll get an exact copy of what’s happening now in closed-access models of publishing). Some of it may become high-quality, with the same probability as in the traditional, closed-access, publishing practices.

From all the arguments above, it’s obvious, to me at least, that there’s no reason for the researcher to pay specifically for his publishing, or the reader to pay for the access. The implementation of open-access systems is cheap (see below). It will only get expensive when various managers with no technical clue will be allowed to get involved and start complicating things more than is necessary (coming with concepts like branding, and whatever else makes them worth of hanging around).

Further, TRS states “A ‘one-size-fits-all’ model is unlikely to benefit everybody, and may cause the significant problems outlined above.”, comparing the needs and resources of an Ethiopian post-doc with a senior fellow in a UK lab. As I argued before, the current model: ‘one-profit-fits-all’, doesn’t work at all.

TRS states also: “The worst-case scenario is that funders could force a rapid change in practice, which encourages the introduction of new journals, archives and repositories that cannot be sustained in the long term, but which simultaneously forces the closure of existing peer-reviewed journals that have a long-track record for gradually evolving in response to the needs of the research community over the past 340 years. That would be disastrous for the research community.”

This is not an argument of keeping current publishing practices ongoing.
If a model ‘adapted’ for 340 years, there shouldn’t be a problem of adapting now, right? Unless some rigidity installed meanwhile.
Even if that will happen, it’s not open-access the reason of their closure, it’s the current model who’s responsible for it. The subject here is: will the research results published in those 340 years be still available in the digital world? That is also what open-access addresses, while commercial publishers cannot warrant such access, due to their nature: if some publisher goes bankrupt, it no longer has any obligation to the reader.

Finally, TRS states “In view of this, the Royal Society welcomes an open debate between funders, researchers, institutions and publishers (both commercial and not-for-profit) about, the likely consequences of new models for the publication of research results, before they are introduced. To inform discussion, the Royal Society recommends a thorough study of proposed new models, including an assessment of the likely costs and benefits to all. Funders should resist the temptation to act before being informed by such a study..”

Sorry but this favors the involvement of clueless managers: based on a fake science, they know already an estimate on how many people fit on the tip of a needle. My opinion is to let funders pay, cautiously of course, for scientific and technical work on open-access models, let various open-access models be implemented and then carry on the studies on which kind of open-access implementations are viable or self-sustaining.

So, here’s a sketch of how open-access should look like:

  1. mandate self-archiving at the creator’s institutional library, give the article an URI, (self-)classify it, provide a point of access to its content and metadata, ensure long-term preservation (that is what “Cautiously”, above, means)
  2. keep non-technical managers at bay
  3. charge a webmaster to ensure smooth serving/locating online the digital content in that library, and raise his salary a bit or lower his salary for not being able to do anything more but providing a google button on the Institute’s web-page (achieved local self-archiving at this point)
  4. keep non-technical managers at bay
  5. use an exchange protocol to synchronize resources between all libraries in the background, to enable location of digital content from every Internet access point
    (worldwide self-archiving)
  6. keep non-technical managers at bay
  7. set up an anonymous peer reviewing system online, which ranks references of the articles above (which are stored in the libraries)
  8. keep non-technical managers at bay
  9. ask social science researchers, philosophers, the research authors themselves, how’s this system doing
  10. tune the odd steps and repeat until settled
  11. (optional) hire a manager to work for a decade and spend the millions which would have been spent on closed-access publishing, on branding, or buy some value-added services from the new-generation publishers, if available.
  12. enjoy the results, and wonder what was there to “debate” about the open-access in the first place. make fun of it.

In fact, in a civilized society, open-access is a synonym of library: open-access is a civil service for which every citizen has already paid.

There you have it, the open debate. Ignore it on your own money.

One Response to “open-access”

  1. Radu Says:

    I hope I understood correctly the issue.

    I think that a rich-knowledge basis would be most interesting for many specialists. Tho, the operating costs could be covered even by some monthly subscription of 1$. If it is a private initiativ and IF it has enough data stored to be of interest to many specialists.
    By some analogy, one can see how abandonware sites are surviving (those storing old computer games, which became freeware).
    On the flipside, the only investition needed over the technical costs, would be to advertise it through the “target customers” and some web-design. But again, that can be amortised easily by some low future subscription, tho making it really accessible.
    But all this IF is a private thingie.

    IF is about public research, about taxes-payed activities, no further discussion needed. It must be free. Period.