3rd try: the choice of where to publish has a moral component
January 28, 2013
[Background for anyone who's not been following: 1, Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. 2, Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. 3, Is it immoral to hide your research behind a paywall?]
First of all, I’d like to offer my profound gratitude to all of you who commented on the previous article on paywall morality. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never seem a comment thread so full of careful, detailed, thoughtful analyses. It’s gratifying, and humbling, to see all that on this blog. Many of the comments deserve to be full posts in their own right, especially (but not only) those by Paul Barrett, Richard Butler, Andy Farke, Jim Kirkland, John Hutchinson, Michael Eisen and Steve Brusatte. I note that this list of names includes many of the most productive British-based dinosaur workers, whose experiences are worth hearing.
A combination of circumstances meant that I wasn’t able to respond to the comments as they came in. But Matt has point out, and he’s right, that that turned out to be a good thing: it meant I didn’t drop speedbumps in the path of the developing exposition, derailing the conversation by chasing after some specific part of it.
There were three things that people most objected to in the original article. and I’d like to touch on all of them.
1. Cost of publication
One of those (and this is an objection mostly from Guardian readers new to the idea of open access rather than from the more informed SV-POW! audience) is fear that publication will be impossible for people without grants. I don’t want to spend a lot more words on this, as we all now know about the many free-to-publish OA journals (Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palaeontologia Electronica, PalArch, etc.), and about PLOS’s no-questions-asked waivers, and about the $99-for-life pricing scheme at PeerJ.
2. The importance of “high-impact” publications
A more important objection, and one that has been near-universal in the lengthy comments here on SV-POW!, is that I was wrong to downplay the importance of “high-impact” publications, especially in Science and Nature, for career progression.
I will have much more to say about this in a future post, but before we get into details let me just say the evidence we have indicates that I was wrong about this. It seems that — at least for palaeontologists in the UK, if not for geneticists in the US — publishing in these venues does matter. I deplore that fact; but this doesn’t make it untrue.
(In my defence, I didn’t exactly tell people not to publish in these journals — only that a case has been made that you don’t need to, that the REF and RCUK both explicitly disclaim venue as a factor, and that there are high-profile OA alternatives.)
3. The morality of paywalls, redux
The third issue is that some people objected to the strap-line of the original article, “Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral”.
On mature reflection, I am inclined to stick to my guns on this one.
As I noted in the last post, it doesn’t follow that everyone who gives their work to a paywalled journal is an immoral person. We live in a complex world, where compromises are sometimes necessary. A strategy to achieve maximum openness in ten years’ time might conceivably involve taking less open routes today. (Several people suggested that if pro-OA people early in their careers refuse to take a Science or Nature opportunity when it comes up, that might prevent them from ever becoming senior people with a more influential role.)
But what I want to get out of this, and the reason I am sticking to my guns, is that I don’t want anyone to walk away from this controversy unaware of the moral dimension — or I should say the immoral dimension — of paywalls.
The path that I have come to take myself, albeit after some years of thought and several publications in paywalled journals, is never again to publish research behind them. I do understand that not everyone will take that path. What I want is that no-one here chooses a paywall without seeing clearly what it represents and making a clear-headed tactical decision. When someone publishes in Nature, there’s a reason. But for someone with a Cretaceous fossil to blithely go, “Oh, I’ll send it to Cretaceous Research” without thinking through what that means — that’s what I want to avoid.
When the public, or a charity, pays us to make new knowledge, it is an immoral thing, considered in isolation, to put the result where the public can’t see it. If we’re going to do that at all, let’s only do it with out eyes open. Let’s only do it after properly weighing the pros and cons.
So. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make, and I’m sorry it’s taken me three attempts.