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The Real Reason Journal Articles Should Be Free 193

Bennett Haselton writes "The U.S. government recently announced that academic papers on federally-funded research should become freely available online within one year of publication in a journal. But the real question is why academics don't simply publish most papers freely anyway. If the problem is that traditional journals have a monopoly on the kind of prestige that can only be conferred by having your paper appear in their hallowed pages, that monopoly can easily be broken, because there's no reason why open-access journals can't confer the same imprimatur of quality." Read on for the rest of Bennett's thoughts on the great free-access debate.

Around the time of the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz, who lobbied tirelessly for free access to academic articles (in his sometimes grey-hat manner, which ultimately got him in trouble), I admitted to some friends that I didn't understand how this became a problem. Why aren't all journal articles free, all the time?

I don't mean that I didn't know why the journal publishers charged exorbitant fees for their subscriptions. If academic researchers have to have access to journal articles in order to do their jobs, then you can expect the journals to gouge academic libraries on the prices. What I didn't understand was: Why do academics even publish in journals that demand exclusive publishing rights for their work, and then charge readers huge fees to read it?

Well actually, we know the answer to that too: academics want the prestige of publishing in big-name journals that have established reputations, and as a result, those well-known journals are in a position to dictate the terms of the contract. A professor might genuinely want to publish their paper in a journal where it can be read for free by all, but they can hardly be blamed for thinking of their own career path first.

Here's the question I really wanted answered: If "prestige" only exists in the minds of other academics within a field, then why don't the academics within a given field just agree to confer "prestige" on papers published in open-access journals, if they can see for themselves that the quality is equivalent to what would be published in the old-guard journals that charge an arm and a leg? And then make hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions accordingly?

I don't mean that the papers published in an open-access journal would bypass the peer-review process, and that everyone in the field would have to judge the papers for themselves without any prior certification of their quality. One of the points that Peter Suber makes repeatedly in his book Open Access is that open access is not about skipping peer review and dumping papers directly onto the web. Rather, the process would work similarly to peer review for a traditional journal:

  1. Author submits a paper to journal XYZ.

  2. Journal XYZ selects one or more peer reviewers from among their list of people they consider qualified to review the paper. The peer reviewers send back their usual suggestions and some consensus is reached as to whether or not to publish.

  3. If Journal XYZ publishes the paper, then they have certified that the paper passed the quality controls in step #2, and the author can now legitimately claim that they had a paper published in Journal XYZ.

  4. If people in the field know that Journal XYZ is not skimping on the quality controls in step #2 — that Journal XYZ is sending the papers to the same academics who would do peer review for one of the old-guard journals, and who are holding the papers to the same standard — then they should respect the paper just as much as if it were published in a traditional journal. If a person has never heard of Journal XYZ, then it should only take a minute to explain to them how it works (and crucially, that Journal XYZ is just as strict about quality as the old-guard journals that everybody has heard of).

Each step in this process should cost the journal virtually nothing. The "hard cost," the part that consumes the time of people with unique skills, is the peer review step, but peer reviewers are usually paid by universities and consider peer review for academic journals to be part of their job description. At a minimum, all the editors really have to do is maintain the list of people they consider qualified to do the peer review, and send the submitted papers off to them.

Moreover, the entire process should be fast. Again, the "hard cost" in time is the peer review, but there's no reason that the delays between submission and publication should be in the range of months or years.

(I'm assuming that the article authors would want their writings to be widely read, or at least would not be opposed to it. That may not be the case if, for example, the authors were commissioned by a pharmaceutical company for a study that cast their drug in a favorable light, but the authors realize that their research methods contained errors and want to minimize the number of eyes on their paper, to reduce the chances of their chicanery being caught. Ben Goldacre's Bad Pharma documents these types of problems very thoroughly, but I'm sidestepping that issue for now.)

So, with that in mind as the ideal, I asked my friends, including many current and former academics, why this essentially wasn't the model that was used. Several mentioned the Public Library of Science, which publishes all articles in its journals under a Creative Commons Attribution License (free for anyone to read and reproduce in full, as long as the original author is cited), and finances its operations through publication fees. These fees are in the $2,000-$3,000 range, heavily discounted for low-income countries and authors, and in any case most academic authors pay the fees out of their research grants and not out of their own pockets. That sounded much better than the traditional model, I thought, but I still didn't understand why the costs weren't even closer to zero. Another friend pointed out that PLOS costs cover the expenses for many of their other activities — which are all noble goals, to be sure, but at the same time, why isn't anybody operating a more bare-bones model which minimizes all expenses, and charges almost nothing for publication or subscription?

This, it turns out, appears to be the approach of the PeerJ project, which aims to let authors pay a one-time fee of $99 at article submission time for the right to publish one article per year — or, if you prefer to pay only if your article is accepted for publication, you can pay $129 "on acceptance" (explained here). And the author of the Techdirt piece mentions that he submitted a paper which was published in the inaugural edition of one of PeerJ's journals, 10 weeks after the submission date. This is cheap and fast enough that I'd call it a validation of the theoretical model which predicts the whole process should be able to be done for almost no cost in almost no time. In other words, I think PeerJ will succeed, but even if it does fail, it will only be because of some anomalous business snafu, not because the hard costs of the service they're providing are greater than the dirt-cheap price they're charging for it. If for any reason PeerJ doesn't happen to get it right the first time, they or some other company should keep trying until someone makes it work.

The basic algorithm at work here — taking a piece of content, submitting it to one or more suitably qualified reviewers, and then certifying the content based on the feedback of the reviewers — is something I've advocated in many contexts over the years, for many different types of problems. In one article I argued that we could make success in the music industry into much more of a meritocracy, with far less arbitrariness in determining who succeeds and fails, if a suitably popular site like Pandora simply took new submissions from artists, had the content "rated" by a random sample of listeners interested in that type of music, and if enough of them liked it, push the content out to all of the fans of that genre. In "Crowdsourcing the Censors" I suggested that Facebook's complaint review process should use the same principle: If a given page received enough complaints, have the page contents reviewed by a random subset of Facebook users who had signed up to be "abusive content" reviewers, and then only flag the page for removal if a high enough percentage of those users voted that the page had indeed violated Facebook's guidelines. This year I argued that "We The People", the White House's online petition-drive-organizing website, should rate ideas based on what a random subset of users think of each idea, rather than allowing users to organize mobs of their friends and followers to vote their own ideas to the top of the pile (which, in case you missed it, is how 4chan gave us this). Or, if you think the general public is not qualified to rate ideas according to how they should be prioritized by the White House (and I'd be inclined to agree), you could have the ideas rated by a random subset of, say, the nation's economics professors.

Of course, I haven't heard of any plans to implement this algorithm in any of those contexts. Not that I expected the key power players to be reading my articles, but it's a little surprising that none of them ever came up with this idea independently, either. (To this day, the only website I'm aware of that ever implemented random-sample voting correctly, was, where users could rate members' pictures by attractiveness — but each picture's rating was determined by showing it to a random subset of the site's visitors. That system is gone, since the site has made itself over into a date-finding service.)

But academia in general, and science specifically, is different from other arenas in a number of key ways which could help this algorithm succeed:

  • Academia, uniquely, is comprised of many professionals whose love of knowledge and intellectual inquiry, is greater than their desire for money. That's not to say that I don't think the same algorithm could work just as well in a business like the music industry, where most of the stakeholders are in it for the money. But even if Pandora did successfully implement the algorithm, it would meet a lot of resistance from entrenched interests in the music industry, who make their money by finding and promoting and managing talent and would not be happy about a new system that threatened to make them irrelevant. In academia, by contrast, it's quite plausible that even the "entrenched interests" — the people who had become superstars under the old system — would see the new system's great potential for disseminating free knowledge, and would welcome it even if it gave scrappy new upstart academics a chance to dethrone them. Not everybody in academia loves knowledge more than they love their own prestige, but I know more people like that in academia than anywhere else.

  • In academia, even among people who do care primarily about their own prestige, many of them have tenure and guaranteed job security, a situation that does not exist in most other industries. This gives them the freedom to experiment with new models, such as submitting papers to upstart PeerJ journals. But more importantly for our purposes, it means they can announce that in their department's hiring and promotion decisions, they will count PeerJ-published papers as legitimate professional accomplishments, for the benefit of non-tenured faculty members who do have to worry about their resume.

  • Academics, particularly in maths and sciences, are more prone to the kind of thinking that would lead a person naturally in the direction of the kind of system that PeerJ embodies. First, think of a theoretical model (like the kind I described near the beginning of the article). This model predicts that, ideally, it should be possible to publish papers at very low cost with quick turnaround times, without sacrificing peer-review quality assurance. Now, try to approximate that model as closely as possible in the real world. (In most other industries that I've worked in, there's much more inertia around the existing way of doing things, and far less willingness to entertain any discussion about whether a theoretical model can show how we could accomplish the same thing with vastly less overhead.)

And that, in the end, is the real reason journal articles should be free. Not because the U.S. government is making it a condition for taxpayer-funded research, although that is a welcome development. But because there's no part of the process that should cost very much to begin with, if article authors and peer reviewers are already being paid by their employers. The last piece of the puzzle is that enough academics and faculty departments have to agree to confer "prestige" on articles published in open-access journals, equivalent to the level of prestige that they would accord for an article published in a traditional journal of the same quality. If they won't do that, then the old-guard journals will maintain their monopoly on conferring "prestige", and don't be surprised if journal prices keep growing to the point where even Harvard can't pay for them.

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The Real Reason Journal Articles Should Be Free

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  • The harsh reality (Score:4, Insightful)

    by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:21PM (#43046599)

    Most academics are publishing to advance their careers/reputations/chances-at-tenure, not as a community service. So publishing in "Bob's Open Source Mathematics Journal/Blog" is NOT the same as publishing in Annals of Mathematics to them. You may be able to talk them into *republishing* their articles in some open-source repository at some later date (and that seems to be the President's goal), but you can forget asking them to forgo the prestige of established print journals for idealism. It's hard enough to get tenure today even with a list of publications in prestigious journals, much less with a long list of publications in fly-by-night open-source journals that your review committee may not have even heard of.

  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:24PM (#43046635) Homepage Journal

    The harsh reality is that you didn't RTFA. Congratulations, you have just described the problem. The article describes one potential solution.

  • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:26PM (#43046669)
    ...that this is precisely the kind of stuff that WWW was invented for. Nah, twenty years later, and the web is dominated by YouTube and Facebook.
  • by Bearhouse ( 1034238 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:27PM (#43046681)

    We paid for it. We should be able to see it, and profit from it.
    Of course, some exceptions for sensitive strategic military stuff, but such should be identified and ring-fenced from the start.

    Now, if Prof. "X" wants to boost his reputation by publishing in a 'prestigious' journal. Well, let him/her pay for it.
    I don't buy this 'editorial excellence and peer review' crap; it's been discredited too many times.

    Put it on the net; it'll get reviewed...

  • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:30PM (#43046747)

    The "potential solution" he seems to be advancing is "We should just all agree that open-source journals shall be as prestigious as the print ones." But that's never gonna happen, for the reason I described.

  • by mog007 ( 677810 ) <> on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:32PM (#43046761)

    Peer review is one of the most important components of modern science. It must be done.

    It ensures data isn't faked or fraudulent.

    Granted, peer review isn't 100% effective, some research slips in that shouldn't. I don't see why the open journals wouldn't just become the more prestigious journals when all the big research goes there first.

  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:33PM (#43046791)

    There are a few journals - Nature and Science being the premier ones - which serve as filters, a word that I don't see mentioned in the OP. (Each field tends to have a few of their own, such as Physical Review Letters in physics, but let's keep it general.) A paper appearing in Nature or Science has passed through a fairly rigorous weeding out process, and is judged to be interesting and / or important to a wide audience. It may not be right, but it is likely to be worth reading. That is not the same as "prestige."

    I don't see these journals going away, even if putting everything in Arxiv becomes routine (as I think it should). There is a lot of stuff published, and the need for filters is going to grow, not diminish, with time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:35PM (#43046823)

    another problem with the "prestigious" journals is that the editors can often be political with the articles received and show bias towards articles that either boost or negate their own research.

  • by Sir_Sri ( 199544 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:46PM (#43046939)

    The key is "review".

    I put stuff up on my webpage all the time. But it's not peer reviewed. If someone from Nature or SIGGRAPH called me tomorrow and asked me to review a paper I'd bloody well do it. But if someone from a journal or conference I never heard of asked me to peer review something I may simply say no. It's not just the prestige of the author that matters. The reviewer has to feel they are actually reviewing peers and not just random crazy people.

    We could do all scientific publishing on our own websites for all it matters if the goal is just free. But the goal isn't free. The goal is make sure that the work that gets published stands at least some degree of scrutiny so you can expect that it actually is a new contribution to a particular field of knowledge. Maintaining those contacts, running those conferences, maintaining the staff that organize this hugely complex apparatus of knowledge and have the skillset to even know what the heck is going on isn't free.

    You can cut journals out of the process, but that job needs to be done by someone, and they need to be paid. Now, obviously you could gut the profit making side of the business (and since it's the government paying for the subscriptions already they're already paying for it, so it could be a cost savings measure), but one shouldn't be under the illusion that the job of peer review isn't important or that it's free.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 01, 2013 @01:53PM (#43047011)

    Each step in this process should cost the journal virtually nothing. The "hard cost," the part that consumes the time of people with unique skills, is the peer review step, but peer reviewers are usually paid by universities and consider peer review for academic journals to be part of their job description.

    The reviewing is the hard part in the sense that it takes the most specialized knowledge to do well. As far as effort though, the part he writes off as costing virtually nothing was by far more time and effort consuming for me than the reviewing part. Selecting reviewers is not a quick and simple thing, especially if you are trying to make sure the reviewers have knowledge of the particular subject. Unless you have some really generic papers, it is difficult to have a short list of reviewers to just pick at random, it takes a lot of time to make sure you have a good match, and to make sure there are no obvious conflicts of interest. On top of that, once you pick the reviewer, there is no guarantee that they will review it in a timely, professional manner. Some reviewers take a bit of nagging to get them to actually get around to things, others obviously review things without much effort and their review reflects they didn't read the paper thoroughly, and then there are more subtle issues and conflicts that can come up between the author and the reviewer. It is one thing if the reviewer obviously didn't read the paper based on their review, much more complicated if the author makes that charge and the review looks at least on topic.

    So while you can have the peer review process managed by volunteers, in my experience at least having done plenty of reviews and having tried volunteering for the other side of the editing process, the management part takes a lot more time and effort. There is a lot more room here to screw things up, depending on how you handle the review selection process, and how you handle conflicts between reviewers and authors. It is even more difficult to keep this consistent if you have multiple volunteers handling this, or if those volunteers have their own schedule slacking, etc. The process does have a lot more potential to run smoothly if you have a single person managing this stuff full time, instead of a handful of people throwing in volunteer time into it. At some point it comes down to someone just spending time to babysit everything.

    That said, I support open access, and I do find some of the prices publishers charge for open access publishing to be rather exceptionally high. I think there is a lot of room for improvement. Although, for a long time, I won't be surprised if it comes down to journals with a small team of paid staff charging reasonable publishing fees tending to edge out completely free and volunteer journals in quality. And it is such difference in quality that could affect the importance and consider such journals get, for both career positioning and readership, especially if there is potential for a feedback effect.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 01, 2013 @02:00PM (#43047073)

    Open-access and other cheap(er) publication venues are out there, more and more over time. But as well as lack of 'prestige' there are obstacles:

    1) If you have a great result you publish it in the best place you can, not the most accessible to random people. Thus open-access journals get weak submissions, which makes them either look weak or not publish much. When someone is looking for a place to publish, he or she may be turned off by the quality or limited/sporadic content, while the journal may water-down its quality in order to have any content whatsoever. The result is a downward spiral.
    2) It's all in the indexing. Looking through random web searches is a necessity, but looking through sites like ACM or IEEE removes a huge amount of dreck.
    3) New venues are flaky. If archived in somewhere prestigious, that archive will likely persist, one way or another. A new journal that pops out of nowhere with unclear backing may or may not be there in a few years, and then all that lovely free access is moot.
    4) They cost too much to the author. Yes, they give discounts to the poor, but it's still a hefty amount to publish when other good places do it for free or fairly close to free.
    5) The people running them are largely unknowns. If some number of well-established and famous people would support and be involved that may turn some heads, but they don't, so it's mostly it's independents, startups and new researchers, none of which have much pull.

  • by ranton ( 36917 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @02:08PM (#43047161)

    You didn't list any actual reasons why an open journal could not become prestigous. You just said that they aren't prestigous enough right now. From what I read, you don't seem to think it is the fact that they are open, just that they are not established enough.

    But if the government mandated that all research that is even partially funded by the federal government must be in open journals, those journals would become the prestigous ones overnight. While I sometimes read research papers written purely by entities like Microsoft Research, even many of those papers still have some professor from a University as a contributer as well.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 01, 2013 @02:10PM (#43047187)

    It's clearly a chicken and egg problem. The established papers have allot of credibility and allot of money and the two maintain themselves: with sufficient income you can pay competent reviewers, have a decent editorial process, advertise, distribute promotional copies, organize conferences etc. This in turn allows you to maintain a high perceived quality, get a high "impact factor" on various scales used to measure academic papers, and thus attract quality articles.

    I don't agree that reviewers are free; they are free only for established journals because those either have some sort of bilateral relationship with the reviewer's employer or they can offer to the reviewer the unique recognition of being a reviewer for a famous journal.

    On open source journal can't break the cycle without a critical mass of high quality authors. So in order to achieve free access, you need the actual academics to care about it enough for them to sacrifice some visibility and academic recognition. They won't because it's against their immediate goal - career and scientific advancement - and because there's not even a collective, financial interest for them, major universities already subscribe to prestigious journals, have ACM and IEEE site licenses etc. So the people writing the top-tier articles are not paying for this racket, it's the universities, governments and lower ranked academics who need to catch up.

  • This is like saying "we don't need Slashdot or Ars Technica or the NYT, just go to Twitter and let the community upvote the most important news. People with more followers have more weight when favoriting/retweeting".

    You will never again see actual news.

    There is no way around peer review, and good peer review can only happen if experts choose the review panel. Now this is already being done by professors for journals (for free!) and there is a movement of high-profile profs that will only review for Open Access journals. This is definitely a way to go, and the government agencies requiring Open Access is likely the best solution to date.

  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Friday March 01, 2013 @02:29PM (#43047387)

    I think the opposite is actually the problem: salaries generally do vary based on prestige which just gives one more reason that scientists feel they need to chase it. Prestige is much more important to salary than seniority and formal credentials: a hot-shot young scientist who is getting papers in Nature on a regular basis will have universities competing to offer him or her more money than they pay many of their tenured faculty.

  • by clawhammer ( 1671506 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @02:42PM (#43047545)
    And yet when I have to write a research paper for class, do I have to go to the library, look up relevant journals in the card catalog, hunt through an index to find keyword references, dance all over the periodicals section finding the proper volume and issue, and then have to sit there then and there to read it and summarize it? No. I can sit at home, log in to my university's library, do a keyword search over a vast number of journals, and get the abstracts and articles immediately. Does my university not have a printed copy? No worries- they've got access to three online databases that have the article.

    Now, I'm sure the university pays large sums of money for this privilege. But it looks to me like the internet is meeting that original reasoning just fine, notwithstanding the amount of people on facebook during class (and then come up to me later not understanding what a constructor is... even though the professor spent the whole hour explaining it.... but that's a different topic).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 01, 2013 @03:22PM (#43048081)

    Something sounds off, as that doesn't sound much like the review process in my field.

    they are free only for established journals because those either have some sort of bilateral relationship with the reviewer's employer or they can offer to the reviewer the unique recognition of being a reviewer for a famous journal.

    I've never been offered anything from a publisher for reviewing, including recognition since it is all done anonymously anyways. It is not like I put reviewing requests on my resume either, as it is typically a consequence of having published with the same journal before, and my publications are already listed. There is no agreement with my employer (a public university) beyond my bosses are ok with me doing it since it needs to be done, as long as I get other work done anyway.

    The review process seems more driven by a sense of duty, "You had people review your papers, you should take time to contribute back for those reviews." Since they typically go after people who have published with them before, crappier journals just go after their authors, and get what they can.

    So as far as I see it, the reviewers are still free. It is the people managing the reviewers that cost money in many fields.

  • by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @04:04PM (#43048525)

    And the sad part is that there is already a large infrastructure in universities that could do most of the "boring" work: libraries and librarians themselves. They know what to do and mostly know and how to do it.

    I'm sorry, but that's just silly. Being a librarian does not mean someone knows what articles should be accepted, who should referee them, how to format them, or most of the other things a professional publishing house does.

    If you look at the mastheads for many of the respected journals, the editors are not librarians (except maybe for journals in library "science"), they are people in the field. Otherwise, you'd be feeding reviewers absolutely unfiltered junk and forcing them to waste their time doing the editor's job of preselection.

    Pooling among different universities would drop the publication costs to nearly zero.

    Pooling would create a more expensive job of coordinating, and of course, put a lot more people on the taxpayer-funded payroll as many people would have to be hired to do this new job. Where you get the idea that this would cut the costs to nearly zero, I cannot understand. Maybe you think that the existing librarians just sit around reading books all day and have lots of free time they could use to run a respected academic journal. Not the librarians I know, and the ones I know wouldn't be able to do the job in the first place.

  • by cozziewozzie ( 344246 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @09:01PM (#43051201)

    The article describes one potential solution.

    I didn't see any solutions, to be honest. Just the standard theoretical solution to the tune of "If ALL top scientists in some field ALL jump ship at the SAME TIME to a few select open journals.....", which sound so nice in theory.

    I have invested 25 years in my education and sacrificed everything for that one chance of becoming a scientist and doing what I really wanted when I was a kid. My friends drive fancy cars, have houses, I have a guitar, a used car, bills, and an 80-hour week, no holidays, constant stress to the point of impaired short-term memory. All for that one shot of becoming a professor.

    Imagine that I get a nice, important result. I have two choices -- publish it in the most prestigious journal imaginable, or go with the feel-good factor and a more open journal. If I make the wrong choice, I'll be flipping burgers for the rest of my life because nobody wants someone like me: old, overqualified, no work experience, no interest in anything but science.

    The way I see it: I have a couple of years to land some important papers. Can I do something to make the open journals more prestigious than the best ones in the field? No. So it's an easy decision.

    Things are changing, but it's a slow process, because prestige and contacts have a lot of inertia. I hope that things are different in 10 or 20 years. Right now anyone can email me and get a copy of any paper they want anyway, I won't sabotage my career because it might buy me slashdot reputation.

Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty. -- Plato