Monday, 16 July 2012

Comment #9: -- Open Access Science

Science is an ivory tower, right?

Scientists work away, in their lab coats, or at their blackboards, closeted away from the real world, right?


In recent weeks... months... years!... scientists around the world have been working to make their discoveries as public as they possibly can. And to fight for your right to benefit from their discoveries.

As well as movements like the Sense About Science campaign, in the UK, which has the tagline "equipping people to make sense of science and evidence", and organisations such as the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation), the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and various other Skeptical organisations around the world, such as the Australian Skeptics, and Neurologica, which work to increase the public understanding of Science...

...there are groups working on the scientific process itself.

Not just to the legal recognition of the scientific method (science journalists like Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, and even teenage Rhys Morgan, have suffered the highly-litigious quacks who abuse contemporary libel law, which prosecutes many for fair criticism), but also to the way Science is published.

A British group has called for an update to the scientific publishing process, which currently requires people to pay for access to research, published by private sector publishing companies, such as Elsevier, in the Journals they own.

The problem with the current system, is that much of the research published in the Journals owned by these companies, is publicly funded. This means taxpayers are having to pay extra to access the same research that they paid to have done!

And on top of this dual expense, much of the money paid to the publishers is well beyond the expense of publishing. In 2011, the largest Journal publisher in the world - Elsevier - made $1.1 billion in profit - a profit margin of 35%!

Incidentally, Elsevier is currently subject to an ongoing boycott, by thousands of researchers, for its dodgy 'bundling' practices, designed to inflate its profit-margin by selling more copies of its Journal editions than people want. More on that later.

This system is not working for Science. And it's not working for people. Scientists want people to know about their discoveries; they want to get their research public as quickly as possible, and as widely available as possible. The world wide web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee for this very purpose - communicating vast amounts of data with relative ease. He gave us this ability for *nothing* and many scientists want us to benefit from their research for nothing, too.

Subscription Journals are hampering these efforts. The world wide web might be free, but it's profit motivated businesses that charge people above expense for using it, and it's profit motivated publishing companies that charge above expense for access to articles.

Currently, the way most Journals are run, is by receiving research papers without fee, and then charging people to view them. If you've ever been to Google Scholar and found a paper at a Journal that's run like this, you'll notice a fee of ~$30 for a lone article, or $hundreds for subscriptions.
But you'll also notice Journals like PLoS One, that charge the researchers to publish, and makes the papers accessible for nothing. The trouble is, research institutions usually have to pick up the tab for publishing, because the publishing companies which own the Journals charge thousands for the pleasure.
Clearly, such high fees are inhibitory to the activities of citizen science, and open-access science. This is the 21st century - Science should be for all - not just for those of us rich enough to afford it.

The system used by PLoS One might be better than the current norm, but it could be much better. It still rewards publishers with massive profits, fed to them out of the taxpayers' pocket, through the research institutes that pay the publishing fee.

But there is no necessity to retain for-profit Journals at all. The public sector need not subsidise these relics of a bygone, paper-based publishing age.
In fact, 80% of Journals currently permit researchers to release their data into open-access depositories, or on their own web-sites.

There are two jargon terms being banded around, at the moment: "gold" and "green".
They are references to different publishing models.
In the Gold model, researchers pay ~$5000 to have their papers accessible free of charge.
In the Gold-minus model, there is a 'shifting wall' where articles older than 12 or 18 months are free, but access is charged for new articles.
In the Green model, the charged access is abandoned altogether, and researchers simply deposit their papers into free-access depositories, run by Universities/institutes/whomever decides to run one.

Publishing companies like the Dutch Elsevier favour the Gold model, of course, because that way they can preserve their billion-dollar profit margins.
As i've said - their intentions do not stop there. Like all profit-motivated organisations, they are constantly seeking to increase their profit margins, so that they can hoard more and more money.
The bundling activity that i mentioned, is the equivalent of Mars (who own many of the popular chocolate bar brands) only selling Mars bars in bundles with Twixes, Snickers, Skittles, Bounties, Galaxies, etc. You might not want them. You might never eat them. But you'd have to pay for them anyway. Needless expense, but it would make the Mars Group more money!

It will come as no surprise to you, in the context of this knowledge, to hear that Elsevier has come out in gushing praise for the Gold model, in the knowledge that they really don't have a chance of obstipating progress entirely!
You'll notice that their argument against the Green model is lack of sustainability. As if companies like Elsevier siphoning billions of dollars out of the public purse is somehow a crucial element to the practice of sustainability.
They are, of course, quite wrong; but not loath to propagandise the outcome that will favour them most!

Depositories are already used, in some pioneering areas of the world, such as french Canada, and they are working well.

The rest of the world should copy them.

But the current Journals have one powerful card in their hand: impact factor.

Researchers prefer to publish their research in Journals that have a high impact factor. This factor is a ratio of the citations made, to the number of papers published. Basically, it acts as a measurement of the impact of that Journal on the world of Science.

A more potent piece of research will be read by and cited more by other researchers, which looks good on the researcher's record, and looks good on the Journal's too.

Many researchers live for impact factor. However, they are not usually judged according to their personal impact factor. The impact factor of the Journals they publish in, is what can make or break attempts to get positions in their favoured research institutions.

Journals also work for impact factor. They judge their standing as a Journal, according to their impact factor, and in comparison to others' impact factors.

Journals want research that will get loads of citations; researchers want to get in Journals that have had loads of citations.

This system is established; and a shift to open-access depositories will demand researchers make a choice between -- people of all stripes being able to know about their achievements, and -- missing out on that great job when it comes around.

Their future employer can easily find out about their work if it's in a depository, filed according to area of research; but it won't have the impact factor that they currently get if published in, for example, Nature, which has a slightly jaw-dropping impact factor of 36. Biochemistry, in comparison, although still highly regarded, has an IF of just 3.2.

This could be a sticky point in the open-access campaigners manifesto, but it is a powerful manifesto nevertheless.

Open-access Science is necessary, to facilitate the machinations of global 21st century Science, and to enable science communicators to effectively communicate science to the wider public.

If there is a third enlightenment on the horizon, it *will* involve open-access Science publication. That is something we should all appreciate.

Numbers to remember:

315%: the average price increase of subscriptions for universities between 1986 and 2003, while inflation was only 68% for the same period.

US$1.1 billion: profits earned by the publisher Elsevier in 2011, a profit margin of around 35%.

Between $7 and $8 million: the cost of electronic subscriptions for Université de Montréal libraries, representing around 80% of the acquisitions budget.

US$24,047: the price of a yearly subscription to the journal Brain Research.

7,000: the number of open access scholarly journals.

80%: the proportion of journals worldwide allowing authors to deposit their articles in an open access repository or on their personal websites.

19 million: the number of pages visited since the creation of the Érudit platform in 1998, whose content is 90% open access.

375,000: the number of theses and dissertations downloaded from Papyrus, the institutional repository of Université de Montréal, in 2011.

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