Open and shut case?

The Tuesday after Easter Monday is always likely to be a slow one at the news desk of a national newspaper in the more-or-less Christian world. But today the Guardian (note for beginners – the great hymn sheet of Liberal England) did itself proud with a splash on scientific publishing. This may be a first.

The story by lovely Alok Jha was to the effect that the Wellcome Trust is about to insist that any research it supports be published in open-access journals. It’s worth seeing in full here It talks about a few journal, eLife, which Wellcome plans to launch and says will

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rival Science and Nature.

Wellcome is a giant of the medical research jungle, up there with the nouveau riche Gates crowd, spending about £600m a year on research in its own centres and un universities. So this looks quite important. Certainly it is a big departure for Wellcome to go head-to-head with the great boutique journals of world science.

And if you say it quickly enough, it is hard to argue that scientific information should be unavailable. This belief has become a bandwagon. A UK House of Commons committee report on the subject a few years ago was more or less pure advertising for the open access movement.

But what is the real problem that this movement seeks to solve?

First, the term “academic spring” that supporters of this reform have adopted is silly, as well as being insulting to the brave people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Next. scientific knowledge is getting more important and is being produced more widely. The 500-700 universities that produce most of it are in about 60 nations (see

People all over the world need this knowledge and there is a strong argument for making it freely available. Universities in

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the developing world, especially, cannot afford high-priced journals.

Finally, journal publishers have got greedy, with big price rises and big profits.

So, what happens when you go open-access? First, publishing costs money. Editing, reviewing, etc, are all costs. So the authors or their institution pay in the form of something like “page charges” instead of via subscriptions. This is good, because big productive universities that carry out research tend to have more money than the lesser ones that read other people’s papers. But it does (further) disadvantage good researchers in modest places, in the developed and even more in the developing world.

Next, it takes money off the library budget and give it to research groups. Good luck with that in the university management meeting.

Next, most of the open-access fuss is about medicine, partly because of all

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the lay interest in medical research from patients’ support groups and the like. So far so good, but has anyone thought how it plays out in astrophysics (big money, probably OK) or history (less money, maybe more problematic)?

Also, many

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funders of research are not as prosperous as Wellcome. They do not pay “overheads” such as library costs. If they have to pay page charges, they say that they will just support less research.

In an era of constant

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media innovation, the journal publishers have hung in there better than publishers of telephone directories or local newspapers. They manage this partly because they have been creative with the content they control, constantly repackaging it into new forms and providing new tools to users. In a few years their business may look very different and a lot smaller, but my bet is that they will still be there in the world of open access. Look out for future moans about soaring page charges.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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