Funding bodies in the US and the UK are pressing scientists to publish their research in open access journals (1). Open access journals are free for readers. The reason behind this push is the conviction that publicly funded research should be freely available for the taxpayers who have financed it. The most common way in which open access journals work is by charging scientists the publishing costs of the articles that they want to circulate.
I was a supporter of the open access movement when it started years ago. With hind sight, I am starting to have second thoughts.
In theory open access is a noble idea; everyone gets access to high-quality scientific information. However, there are risks in forcing a business model where the paying customer is the entity interested in publishing and not the reader in search of enlightenment. In addition, the move to empower the public providing free access to science may have unintended consequences: When everything looks the same, when everything is for free, how to distinguish between real scientific journals and sham publications?
Sham journals that will publish anything for profit and organisations willing to pay in order to release flawed studies that support their particular agendas are flooding the web (2, 3). This doesn’t affect scientists who are capable of detecting flawed research with relative ease. Sham journals affect the public that the open access policy is aiming to help. Lay readers can be bamboozled by grand-sounding titles like “International Journal of Scientific Medicine”. Non-experts performing online research may not be up to the task of distinguishing credible research from junk.
A business model where journals strive on a strong readership base forces editors to make greater efforts selecting excellent scientific papers compared to a model that depends only on authors paying a fee. This is not saying that all open access journals are bad. PLoS Genetics is a well-regarded scientific journal and it is open access. What ultimately separates scientific journals from pseudoscientific magazines is tough peer review and honest editorial work.
Perhaps, instead of accustoming the lay public to get everything for free, alternatives to full-blown open access could be sought:
– Conditional open access (where journals release articles for free after a quarantine period that allows access only to subscription payers) underlines the value of scientific articles. And it works: When I was a student in a developing country I used to wait for articles in good journals (such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry) to be released.
– Pay as you read; Nature’s ReadCube is an excellent example of this method but its current prices are excessive.
– Libraries. The president of the Royal Society (and Nobel laureate) Sir Paul Nurse once reminisced in BBC Radio 4 “When I was a boy, if I read a book it was likely to say something sensible…” “We don’t have the same emphasis in editorial control any more”. When he was a boy, Sir Paul used to go to libraries. On-line libraries -offering access to prestigious journals- could be created by funding bodies that support open access policies.
Else, if we insist in an open access policy, Universities and funding bodies should take responsibility for the dangers associated with it. They should campaign to raise awareness and compile lists of reliable open access journals. For now, Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers 2013 (2) and others do the job of pin-pointing bad journals. But we cannot rely only on the efforts of isolated individuals fighting pseudoscience.Follow @arielpoliandri