Questions concerning Open Access research
November 16, 2012
Last night, I got a message from Joseph Kraus, the Collections & E-Resources Analysis Librarian at Penrose Library, University of Denver. He’s asking several open-access advocates (of which I am one) to answer a set of seven questions for a study that will investigate institutional activities and personal opinions concerning open access resources. The title of the study will be Comparing scholarly communication practices and policies between the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) stakeholders, and it will be submitted to a BOAI-compliant open-access journal.
With Joe’s consent, I am posting his questions here, along with the answers that I gave. It was an interesting process to go through, and left helped me to clarify my own thoughts and feelings on some of these issues.
1) The Finch report and the RCUK report recently came out. These reports have taken stances concerning green and gold open access in the UK. What are your thoughts on the issue of green vs gold open access policies?
Well, the most important point to make is that it really doesn’t matter. Green and Gold OA are not two different things; they are just two complementary strategies to achieve the same goal. So whether we get there by the Green or Gold route is much less important than that we get there. I care much more about full BOAI compliance (i.e. freedom to reuse, not just to read) than I do about Green vs. Gold.
It’s also worth noting that the Finch report doesn’t really take a stance on which route is better — instead, it ignores Green completely, and just doesn’t comment on it one way or the other.
I suppose in principle I slightly prefer Gold, because that way there is only one definitive version of the article. But publishers have a lot of work to do to persuade me that their contribution (as opposed to the editors’ and reviewers’ freely donated contributions) are worth £2000 a pop, or even $1350.
2) PLOS ONE is a well-known large open access journal that covers a broad range of disciplines. Because it has been deemed successful, other publishers have also proposed or started similar journals. What is your opinion of this new type of publication outlet?
PLOS ONE is the single greatest thing to have happened to scholarly publication. Its approach to peer-review is precisely correct: if a submission is good science, it gets published, period. The journal makes no attempt to judge the paper’s likely impact — which is pure guesswork anyway. It lets the scientific community decide, which is exactly as it should be.
(This approach has sometimes been called “peer-review lite“. That is exactly wrong. The peer-review at PLOS ONE is as harsh as it is anywhere. What’s lite, and indeed completely absent, is selection by trendiness and sexiness. Which is exactly as it should be. We are scientists, not marketeers.)
So I am keen to see many other venues with the same approach. That’s important because, as good as PLOS is, we don’t want to see a monoculture develop, not even a PLOS monoculture.
3) Harvard University has recommended to their faculty to “consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.” The concept of “moving prestige to open access” is an interesting statement to the Harvard faculty authors and researchers. What do you think of this statement?
First, let me take a moment to (A) commend Harvard for taking this initiative, but (B) deplore the very weak wording “recommended … to consider”, rather than imposing an actual mandate. What they’ve done is good; but it could and should have been so much better.
The idea of “moving prestige to open access” is exactly right. During the early days of the OA movement there was a completely groundless idea — propagated by paywall publishers, I presume — that OA venues were somehow inferior to paywalled ones. That idiot notion seems to have died now, but we can and should and must go further — we need to convey to job-search, promotion, tenure and granting committees that open-access publications ought to count for much more than paywalled ones.
The bottom line is, if a paper is behind a paywall, it’s not really published. The academic community is less able to benefit from it; that is even more true of the broader population, which in most cases funded the work. This is the 21st century. By now, the idea of letting your paper be locked up where no-one can see it should be a shameful one, the sort of thing you admit to only when cornered. Harvard’s statement is a good step towards reconfiguring scholarly norms in this way.
4) University presses and many societies are concerned about how the open access movement will affect their financial bottom line. What concerns do you have about open access and society publications?
Without doubt, there is an issue here — it’s the one potential downside of the shift to OA that bothers me.
That said, we do have to ask what scholarly societies are for. In some cases — the ACS springs to mind — we are seeing the tail wagging the dog: the society sometimes talks and acts as though the discipline exists for its benefit rather than vice versa. That won’t do. Societies have to benefit their disciplines, otherwise they are a waste of time, energy and money. And unquestionably the best way they can benefit the science they are there to serve is by releasing research to the world.
So I hope that societies can make the OA transition in a way that allows them continue to do the things they’re doing. But if it comes to a choice between the society thriving at the science’s expense or vice versa, then the science has to be the winner every time.
5) AltMetrics is gathering steam as an additional method for faculty to determine the impact of their work. Do you plan to take advantage of this data for either your work, or for the benefit of your institution or department?
At this early stage in the story of AltMetrics, I am not too sure what I am supposed to actually do with it, so I am really at the wait-and-see stage.
The one thing I feel passionately about in this area — and it’s so obvious it seems stupid even to say — is can we please measure the right thing? Using impact factors to evaluate journals is statistically illiterate, but it’s at least what IFs were intended for, however flawed they may be. Using IFs to judge a paper by what journal it appears in is idiotic. If you have to have a number to judge the paper by, then use its own citation count if you must — not the citation counts of other papers that appeared in the same journal. And judging a researcher by the IFs of the journals that her papers appeared in transcends the merely idiotic and achieves the level of moronic.
If AltMetrics bring an end to this astonishingly persistent practice, that will be enough of a win to justify all the work being done.
6) The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK notes: “No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs.” While this is a valid statement for UK based research evaluation, it would be impossible to get a majority of academic tenure and promotion committees throughout the United States to agree to a similar statement in the near future. Since the UK has the REF, and the US does not, how much is this holding back the US from adopting greater OA policies at various institutions?
Kudos to the REF for making this statement. The Wellcome Trust has said something similar, and I would love to see other funding bodies (and universities and departments) publicly saying the same.
If US institutions are using IFs to evaluate researchers, then … I am trying to find a polite way to express the depth of my contempt for this damaging and incompetent behaviour, but I am struggling to do it. At the very least, it will contribute to eroding the US’s position in the academic world.
Really. It’s exactly as rational as high-school kids judging their classmates by the label of the clothes they wear. We’re scientists. We’re better than that.
JUST STOP IT, AMERICA!
(You too, France.)
7) Is there anything else you would like to say concerning open access publishing?
I think we’ve just about covered it :-)