Scientific publishing: is “open access” a disingenuous term?

Now is as good a time as any to put in my $0.02 worth on the scientific publishing industry. As someone who has needed to access journals while being inside the great academic library firewall, and outside of it, I have a well developed appreciation of the difference between the haves and the have-nots. As is obvious to anyone who has used the internet lately, the traditional business model of scientific journal publishers is functionally obsolete, since the most important value proposition – physically applying ink to paper and putting a postage stamp on the final product – is now an optional luxury that most readers could easily live without.

Given that the scientists themselves obtain the funding, do the research, write the paper, format all the figures and references and file formats in exactly the way the journal wants them, jump through various other hoops, and then rely on barely-paid editors and unpaid volunteers to review the article, what exactly is left to be done? Some administrative overhead, a bit of extra typesetting, and however much it costs to operate a website, that’s what. Not exactly very fair for a product that costs hundreds of dollars per year for an electronic subscription, or $30-40 per article.

Enter the proposed solution: open access journals. Great, one might think – liberate the knowledge, free the business model and all that, just like the open source movement, right?

Ah, no, not so much. A better term than “open access” might be author-pays, as distinguished from reader-pays. A typical fee for publishing a paper in a respectable author-pays journal is north of $1000. For many well funded research organisations this is probably just a blip, but not every scientific author with a publication-worthy manuscript is so fortunate.

It is a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, because obviously publishing a quality journal isn’t free, even without printing costs, and the current going rate for per-manuscript publishing fees are probably barely sufficient to break even. Somebody has to pay, but transferring the burden onto the author seems to me to be a final insult, and a non-solution to a serious problem – or even a deliberate straw-man. There has to be a better way, and I would very much like to see more discussion of alternatives.



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