Why open access publishing is troublesome

In various email lists etc. there have been a lot of discussion about the future of paper journals and the superiority of open access on-line journals. Although I agree that information should be widely accessible and that many (especially independent) researchers are left out of the loop due to the cost of subscribing to journals, the solution is not to just move access-restricted journals into the public domain, nor to abolish paper journals. Sometimes there’s made a connection between the seemingly inevitable demise of other physical media (e.g. cd’s and similar will be entirely replaced by digital downloads) but this is a very misleading analogy. The most important thing about scholarly research and academic journals is that they have to be subject to a quality control, usually in the form of a peer review. Although there’s nothing difficult about doing this with open access journals, the main problem is that it is difficult for the reader to know the extent and quality of peer review. The reason is that with open access journals, there is often no discernable body that puts its reputation at stake. If a journal is rumoured to not take the peer review process seriously, then no respectable publisher would let that continue. Blackwell, Springer etc. have a reputation at stake. With online journals, there is often no such stakes involved. I’m not saying that this is foolproof (there are probably many instances of shoddy journals hiding behind a respectable publisher), but at the very least it is a more reliable indicator than anything found on the Web. Thus, the alternative to the current system cannot bypass the important role of the publishers. The alternative, in other words, is not to start up a host of independent, ad hoc journals, but rather to sway the publishers to find alternative and more accessible means of publishing their journals. The reason why the analogy with record companies does not hold, is that there is no such requirement for peer review and quality control in music. Research is not a matter of the taste of the consumers, but the quality of the research; and currently the best way we have of controlling the latter seems to be peer-review and to have it done through a publisher with a reputation at stake. In more constructive terms, I think the sustainable road to more open access journals is to sway the publishers, not to simply set up alternatives whose scientific quality is difficult to assess.

7 thoughts on “Why open access publishing is troublesome”

  1. I’m not sure if this is a satirical April Fool’s post or not? Of course the online publisher has a reputation at stake, just like any other journal. If they engage in shoddy peer review and publish inaccurate or inferior papers, people will stop reading the journal. If this happens, people stop publishing in the journal and revenues vanish. I really don’t understand why anyone would ever think that there is a difference here between any form of online journal (Open Access or otherwise) and a stereotypical print journal.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I do agree that online publishers have a reputation at stake. The problem is that many open access journals are “published” independently of any publisher. This is why I concluded by saying that the road towards quality open access journals is to sway the publishers rather than create independent alternatives.

  3. Hmm… most of the Open Access journals I can think of off the top of my head have some sort of advisory board at least.

    The argument still holds that if a journal publishes inferior content, it will not be read or published in, and will be irrelevant/out of business in short order.

    I agree that it would be great if we could convince the current publishers to embrace Open Access. Unfortunately they have often fought it quite vehemently, and even when they do implement some measure of openness it still doesn’t go far enough.

  4. True enough. A solid editorial board with a number of high-profile persons would have a reputation at stake. However, I’m afraid that many researchers simply lend their names to such boards without bothering or having the time to check the quality of the journal. As for quality, there are a number of quality issues that cannot easily be spotted by non-expert readers and the hope that a sufficiently knowledgable peer stumbles across and inferior paper and reports it, is somewhat less reliable than making sure that there is a comprehensive peer-review prior to publication. Spotting errors afterwards could also mean that damage is already done.
    Ultimately, I do appreciate your comments and regret that this rant wasn’t more constructive. I am mainly pointing out problems here, and I’m really happy that there are people who keep the flame burning in more constructive ways. I think the main problems that I point out are the kinds of issues that trouble employers. When someone lists an online publication on their cv, it can often be difficult to assess the quality of that paper. If you’ve got papers in journals published by respectable publishers, it is more likely (although far from certain) that it’s of high quality.

  5. Also I must say that the whole peer review process is rather stressed as well. Disciplines with too little scientist to make peer review ‘blind’. Reviewers not really reading all there is to review as there is too much. With publications and citations as measure of academic success, I’d say the peer review system has enormous scaling problems.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Ton. Yes, you are absolutely right about the scaling problem… and referee reports are often completely inconsistent with each other due to the reasons you mention. I didn’t really intend to defend the peer review system. I guess my somewhat overstated point was that whatever quality control there is, it should be supervised by an easily recognizable body with a reputation at stake

  7. Indeed, some form of quality assessment is always in order. Not sure if it’s by way of a Gatekeeper, or some other form. My feeling is that with the new digital reality, different information literacy skills become more important. Evaluation, validation and authentication of information being amongst them.

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