March 1, 2007
It’s good to see something like this published on a high-traffic site such as the BBC. More eyeballs is always a good thing when promoting a good cause. I certainly believe that if I, and you, have paid for the research indirectly via taxation, then we should both be given access to the output of that research. When I see some publications charge $25 for an electronic copy of one paper which, by its very nature, requires no human intervention to deliver and no physical costs in terms of paper or postage, I wonder where the money is going. More to the point, I wonder if anyone is buying (site-licenses aside).
It costs next to nothing to run the web services required to offer the already-archived material, if you do it right. If the information is for the public good, it should certainly be allowed to flow through the hands of the public who paid for it.
The old publishers may not change their ways. It’ll take time for any open-access journal to build up enough of a reputation (all too often, the journal or conference proceedings a paper is published in is more important than the content of the paper itself), but there’s nothing to say it can’t be done.
We live in a world where information flows freely. The web is still a young thing, but already it has allowed many good writers to bubble up who would never have otherwise been seen. It has allowed the free exchange of information. So why are the publishers of scientific papers so far behind?
You could say that various scientific processes are behind the curve. Peer-review works on the basis of a handful of reviewers looking over each paper in consideration of publication. When I say “works,” I use the term fairly loosely. Most often, the names of the authors of a paper are not hidden to the reviewers, and so a well-known name, a name with a high reputation, or a friend, gets a higher score from a reviewer than she or he would have otherwise, thus skewing the published literature. With the proliferation of conferences and journals, there’s an unfortunate tendency to simply re-submit papers until somebody somewhere accepts it. There’s a lot more wrong in science than just the pay-twice-for-access problem.
I do wonder if, one day, the web will open science up to a more democratic mode of operation, or if the obsession with citation counts (regardless of paper quality) will ever die off.