Monday, November 28, 2005

Open access- the Royal Society says go slow

UPDATE: I got this link from Snowdeal, which has a very nice set of links on this topic.

The Guardian ran an article last Friday in which the Royal Society of London argues against a rush to open access for scientific articles. At issue is a proposal by the Research Councils UK that scientists receiving funding from them be required to put a copy of their research online.

From the position paper of the Royal Society:


the Society believes that the approach of some organisations to the 'open access debate' is threatening to hinder rather than promote the exchange of knowledge between researchers. This is partly because some participants in the debate appear to be trying to pursue another aim, namely to stop commercial publishers from making profits from the publication of research that has been funded from the public purse.
...
The process of disseminating research results through peer-reviewed papers costs time and money. Authors must invest time in preparation of the paper, and in some cases must pay journal charges for typesetting and other services. Journals incur charges through the process of reviewing papers and then publishing those that are accepted. Journals recover these costs primarily by charging subscription fees, and occasionally through sponsorship and selling advertising space.


Thus the whole business model of society journals supporting themselves (and returning a bit of money to the society) would wilt unless they controlled access to the data. The Royal Society, which publishes the Proceedings, sees that no one will subscribe if the same data are available for free elsewhere.

The issues they raise are non-trivial: reviewing and editing are a lot of work, and in particular I cannot see who would step in for quality control in a completely open-sourced system. I would say this and further say that there will always be the need for a filter or explainer to put the significance of particular works into layperson's terms. And the society themselves agree that taxpayers have a right to see what they've paid for.

With that said, I think this statement is fighting against a pretty powerful tide. I see how well done the American PLoS journals are (follow the link in my sidebar), and I see the blogs and RSS feeds popping up in the Nature and Cell Press, and I have to believe that this is the future.

I would just hope that increased and improved access would translate into more widespread interest in science.

UPDATE: The Economist has a very interesting take on this issue: transparency is going to change the way that scientists work, and maybe sees a way around the problem of reviewing and quality control. Sorry for the block-quotes, but they do say it best:

All this could change the traditional form of the peer-review process, at least for the publication of papers. The process is organised by the publisher but conducted, for free, by scholars. The advantages afforded by the internet mean that primary data is becoming available freely online. Indeed, quite often the online paper has a direct link to it. This means that reported findings are more readily replicable and checkable by other teams of researchers. Moreover, online publication offers the opportunity for others to comment on the research. Research is also becoming more collaborative so that, before they have been finalised, papers have been reviewed by several authors.

I wouldn't be quite so rosy as this. In particular, people engaged in a collaboration are necessarily rather compartmentalized. Often the best critique of a particular experiment comes from the one other person-- usually a competitor-- who does exactly that. Still, every worker in the current system can tell a story of the vagaries of the current review process. It's not at all airtight.

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