August 29, 2007

Open Access Publishing

The question of where to publish the results of research (especially publically-funded research) has been steadily coming to prominence this year, particularly following a Nature news article revealing that a consortium of scientific publishers has hired a “pit bull” (Nature’s term, not mine) of Public Relations to fight their corner. The result seems to be PRISM, a lobby group opposed to open-access publishing.

A lot of electrons have been spilled over this issue, and, sadly, it is apparant that the debate is far from well-tempered. Scientists in favour of open access publishing are angered by claims that open access would mean the end of peer review. Those claims, it seems to me, are almost entirely unfounded; it seems to me that this is a claim being put around in the knowledge that it is false, to try and scare people off open access publishing. Open access journals such as BioMed Central and The Public Library of Science Journals are peer-reviewed by scientists in the relevant field (who do so for free) in the same way that pay-to-read journals are.

The case for public access to research the public is funding (through taxation) has been made elsewhere, and debated at length, so I won’t go into that here. I think there’s a slightly different point to be made from the point of view of advancing science, though. As a scientist, it’s very frustrating to find an interesting article referenced in a piece of research I read, or that crops up when doing a literature search, only to find that my institution doesn’t subscribe to the relevant journal. It’s obvious that making my research freely available is more useful to the scientific community at large than publishing it in a journal that requires other scientists (or their employers) to pay to read it. I’m aware of the parallel here to some of the things I said about free software a while back!

For junior scientists, there’s another issue, too. The next job (particularly if it’s a faculty/tenured post) will largely depend upon your publication record. The impact factors of open access journals are often not that high (partly because they’re relatively new), which may mean that potential employers who are too focussed on bibliometrics will rate papers therein less highly. Nailing your colours to either side of such debates can be dangerous, too, if you’re un-tenured. I’m evidently not entirely risk-averse!

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