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What is the future of scientific publishing?

The British Government has thrown its support behind a call for all publicly funded scientific research to be published in open-access journals, according to a recent report in The Guardian.

In the article below, Ben Harris-Roxas, a health impact assessment consultant in Sydney, examines the merits of open-access publishing.

***

Open-access publishing is not a panacea

Ben Harris-Roxas writes:

Research funding bodies around the world are increasingly requiring publicly funded research be published in open-access journals that allow free access to articles. (Australian government funding bodies have been considering a similar move).

At the same time academic publishers have been posting record profits, one of the few areas within publishing that has remained strongly profitable. What’s going on?

The push for open-access publishing is fair enough. The public pays for the research so they should be able to freely access it. This has enormous benefits in allowing research to more readily inform practice and also improves access to research in less developed countries whose institutions can’t afford the often extravagant journal subscription charges.

There are difficulties with publishing in an open-access journal though and I’ll be frank; it is a costly, time-consuming and often frustrating process.

The open-access publishers are competing with enormous commercial publishers with well-developed editorial systems and higher levels of editorial staffing and support. Open-access journals impose substantial processing fees to cover their costs, usually in the order of several thousand dollars and these are borne by the authors.

Institutions are often understandably unwilling to fund this new expense and funders often question budgets that include it. Many who have published in an open access journal get frustrated with multiple minor revisions required after acceptance, even though they’re paying for it. Of course commercial publishers cover their costs by owning what they publish, but this cost isn’t necessarily one directly felt by authors.

All this leads to a situation where authors who are committed to making their findings accessible are often reluctant to publish in open-access journals.

What’s the solution? Both open-access and commercial publication models have significant problems. Funder requirements are helping to open up research, but without money to back up new mandates it becomes another irritation for researchers and impediment to disseminating research findings.

There’s also an issue on the horizon that may render this all moot – whether we should persist with peer review as we currently understand it.

Peer review is an axiom of scientific publication. It’s how we ensure the quality of published research. That’s a lot to ask of an unfunded and largely unrecognised process. In recent years, with growing pressures to publish, the volume of articles has grown quickly but the number of willing peer reviewers hasn’t.

Recent controversies over contested topics and cases of scientific misconduct also show that the public and even many scientific stakeholders don’t appreciate what peer review represents. It’s a process that (hopefully) ensures what gets published is sound, makes sense and has reasonable conclusions that are supported by findings. It is not a guarantee of truth.

In light of these pressures on peer review is it time to move beyond thinking about open-access to an open-review process? 

Many open-access journals now make reviews available with published articles (see BioMed Central for examples), though some have argued that transparent, named review processes creates a further disincentive for reviewers.

If researchers gained greater recognition for their reviews new models of publishing might become possible. Imagine if researchers listed their publicly accessible reviews under their publications on their CVs. Or if journals offered more substantial incentives for reviewers in the form of discounts on their own future publications (some open-access publishers already offer nominal discounts). Or even if unreviewed manuscripts could be posted on a journal website with an invitation to review, though this would raise the thorny issue of ensuring the expertise of reviewers.

Making research publicly accessible is clearly a desirable goal but more creative thinking will be required. Requirements for open-access publication alone won’t be enough.

• Disclosure: I have editorial roles with BMC Public Health and Environmental Impact Assessment Review. I don’t receive payment for either of these roles and I am not writing on behalf of either publication.

• Ben Harris-Roxas is a health impact assessment consultant in Sydney. You can find him on Twitter at @ben_hr or @hiablog