Go for the gold

Fri 03 Jul 2009 01:00 AM

Open Access (OA) publication seems like a no-brainer for scholarly articles. We are not paid directly for our writing; we act from the altruistic motive of adding to human knowledge and from the selfish motive of furthering our own careers. Both motives are thwarted if the articles are locked up in expensive journals that only a few scholars can access. From the side of human knowledge, we contribute best to the ongoing conversation if people can actually read what we write. From the side of publishing to avoid perishing, open access publications are cited more than comparable closed access publications.

OK, but which OA? There are two primary models:

Green OA relies on authors making their papers available on the web - on their own websites, on institutional repositories, and on disciplinary repositories. Some worry that this will destroy for-profit journals and the services that they (arguably) provide. However, physics went the route of green OA years ago; preprints of most physics papers are available on arXiv, but the feared journal argmageddon has not occurred.

Gold OA requires authors* to pay when their paper is published; the paper is then made available free on-line. This allows journals to make at least as much money as they have been making, providing whatever services they have (arguably) been providing.

[EDIT: As Kai von Fintel points out, this is misleading. There are non-profit Gold OA journals which don't charge author-side fees at all. What I say below does not apply to those commendable journals. Rather, the worry below is that Gold OA only introduces new problems so long as journals are produced by for-profit publishers.]

One may worry, of course, that Gold OA could just be a money pump for publishers. A few recent data points:

1. Bentham has founded OA journals for dozens of disciplines, giving them uninventive titles of the form The Open X Journal for all X.

Philip Davis submitted a 'nonsense manuscript' to The Open Information Science Journal. That paper was titled 'Deconstructing Access Points', and it was generated by an algorithm which randomly filled sentence schemata with computer science jargon. Davis offered it under the guise of two fictional scholars working at the equally fictional Center for Research in Applied Phrenology.

Sadly, it was accepted. Davis declined to pay the publication fee. Bentham later claimed that it knew all along that the paper was a hoax but accepted it so as to unmask the hoaxers.

Davis describes the hoax, and Peter Suber provides a good round-up of the aftermath.

2. In April, I received an e-mail inviting me to consider being on the editorial board for The Open Philosophy Journal.** The invitiation said, with the emphasis of several surrounding asterisks, "In order to ensure that the Editorial Board of the journal consists of potential productive members, it is expected that each board member publishes one article each year in the journal."

Summoning up emphasis of my own, I replied: "I frequently review papers for journals, and I am a proponent of open access. So I am interested in the Bentham Open journal project. However, it is ridiculous to suggest that every member of the editorial board should publish in the journal every year. It would be the worst kind of academic incest, and I can't think of any legitimate journal that operates in this way."

The prompt, polite response was that annual publication was "expected... but... not mandatory" and that Bentham looked forward to receiving my CV. They either entirely missed or decided to ignore the part where I accused them of being crooked. I had even used the word 'incest', because it should have the inescapable connotation of moral censure.***

So Bentham Open looks pretty dodgy to me. Even if it is not, Gold OA invites dodginess.

3. Traditional publisher Elsevier published promotional material that looked like journals. At the behest of pharmaceutical paymaster Merck, it put together six different fake journals with titles like Australasian Journal of Neurology and distributed them to doctors. Admittedly, these fake journals reprinted articles rather than publishing original research. Considering just the balance sheet, however, the model for Elsevier was the same as the Gold OA model: Get paid to put articles in a publication and give the publication away.

Recall that Green OA is met with the worry that it will blow up the for-profit publishing establishment. One wonders whether that would be a bad thing.

* For scientists working under grants, the costs for gold OA publication would be added into the budget for the grant. For scholars affiliated with universities, their institution could pony up the money - this cost would be balanced by savings in library budgets. Woe unto us who don't get grants and who work at institutions where library budgets are already being slashed.

** Not to overstate things, I was invited to consider "possible nomination to the Editorial Board Membership of the journal"; ie, they were willing to look at my CV.

*** Does it not have that connotation anymore? Should I instead have said, "That is the way Hitler would have run a journal"?


from: Kai von Fintel

Fri 03 Jul 2009 10:11 AM

It is not true that (all) "Gold OA requires authors to pay when their paper is published". See Peter Suber's statement:

"A common misunderstanding is that all OA journals use an "author pays" business model. There are two mistakes here. The first is to assume that there is only one business model for OA journals, when there are many. The second is to assume that charging an upfront processing fee is an "author pays" model. In fact, fewer than half of today's OA journals (47%) charge author-side fees. When OA journals do charge fees, the fees are usually paid by author-sponsors (employers or funders) or waived, not paid by authors out of pocket. This misunderstanding is harmful because it makes authors wonder whether they can afford to pay the fees and gives OA opponents a chance to spread FUD. In fact there are many reasons why OA journals do not exclude the poor." (http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm)

There is no doubt that some of the author-pays Gold OA journal operations are shady, but not all are. But more importantly, most Gold OA journals do not charge author-fees at all. They are usually institutionally supported, for example: Semantics & Pragmatics, the journal I co-edit, which is supported by the Linguistic Society of America, MIT, and the University of Texas. We do not charge authors a dime, but provide great peer-review and editing services. Submission is open to any and all.

from: Administrator (P.D. Magnus)

Fri 03 Jul 2009 10:33 AM

"There is no doubt that some of the author-pays Gold OA journal operations are shady, but not all are. ... We do not charge authors a dime, but provide great peer-review and editing services."

Good point. The central point (which was lost in my rambling post) is that for-profit journals are the underlying problem, and that there is not reason to think that a shift to Gold OA would help with this problem. Journals like yours are necessarily sponsored, non-profit affairs. My favorite journal, Philosopher's Imprint, is another notable non-profit OA journal that charges no author-side fees.

from: Greg

Fri 03 Jul 2009 04:21 PM

Since you've been following this stuff much more closely than me, perhaps you know offhand the answer to a question I've been wondering about for a while: _why_ hasn't the success of the arXiv resulted in "journal armageddon"?

from: P.D.

Sun 05 Jul 2009 09:24 PM

Greg: I'm not entirely sure, but the simple answer is that libraries are still subscribed to journals. ArXiv started as a way of making research available quickly, but that's only useful to experts who can discern what's important or noteworthy. Journals serve a valuable function of marking quality research. Although that is a relatively slow process, the non-experts who rely on the journals to sort research for them typically don't need research as quickly as the experts do.