The Importance of Openness

Open prairie.  Image credit: Laikolosse (CC-BY-NC).
Open prairie. Not the same kind of openness as discussed below, but it looks nicer. Image credit: Laikolosse (CC-BY-NC).

On March 18, the National Science Foundation took a small step toward advancing the state of science in the world by announcing a new public access plan (more details here). It is a good start, but leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Academic publishing is dominated by for-profit publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, and others), who rake in the big bucks.

Here’s how their racket works. Academic researchers need to be able to read about the findings in their field and related fields, so rather than paying $30-40 per article, the institutional library will negotiate a year-long contract.* Because the publisher has a monopoly on research in their journals, the libraries don’t have much leverage during negotiations. Publishers will sell “bundled” journal packages, which include the journals people actually read and use, as well as a whole bunch that are extremely infrequently read. This manipulates the cost-per-article and cost-per-journal statistics.

For the researchers, library costs are generally an externality. Combine that with the need to publish in established journals if you want to land a tenure-track job, get tenured, or get promoted, and the researchers have all kinds of motivation to publish in the for-profit journal.

The system perpetuates. Researchers only publish in for-profit journals to keep their jobs, and the for-profit journals keep milking the library for everything it’s worth, safe to point out that people should publish with them because that’s what everyone reads (because that’s where people publish). It’s a vicious cycle, just like in computer software, where people write software for Windows because that’s what people use, and people use Windows because that’s what people write software for. None of that is to say that Windows is a good operating system, just a fairly well entrenched monopoly.

In the past few years, there has been an increased awareness of the need to break this cycle. Particularly, the National Institues of Health has moved to requiring that papers be made available free-of-charge on PubMed immediately upon acceptance for publication in any peer-reviewed journal. The program has been well-received by the academic community, and means that more people have access to the results of federally-funded research.

However, the NSF has been lagging behind the NIH in this front. Their recent move is a good step in the right direction. However, it still gives a 1-year embargo to preserve the profits of publishers. The rule doesn’t go into effect for quite a while, either. Only grant applications which were due or submitted after January 1, 2016 will be subject to the rule.

A few issues remain. Access to articles published before 2017 (6 months to review grant applications, plus 6 months to paper, a very generous estimate) will still be paywalled. Some of the literature I’m highlighting here on the blog is from the mid-1980s, yet access still is $30-40/article.

The real solution is open-access journals, such as PLOS One, PeerJ, or the family of journals published by the European Geophysical Union. Because of the NIH requirement, the biological and medical sciences have seen a great deal of inroads for open-access journals. Sadly, the geological sciences have generally lagged behind.

* The terms of which, both financial and otherwise, are protected under non-disclosure agreements.


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