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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

 

Comments 5

  1. richard.hecker says:

    Thank you for your thoughts Ben. I’d like to comment with my scholarly publisher hat on.

    Many of your comments on Open Access are fair. It costs money to publish material. Outside of any editorial honoraria, the software to run peer-review and production, the website support, the marketing & promotion, let alone printing, need to come from somewhere. Whether the funding is from the reader (subscription) or author (open access) is simply settling on a viable, sustainable business model.

    (Having said that, I do object to the implications that *all* publishers are making stag profits – perhaps the ‘big three’ (Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, T&F) but the road isn’t always so smooth for smaller, society focussed publishers especially where there is a scientific or national interest at stake.)

    In many cases OA does get taxpayer funded work back into the hands of the taxpayer, and this is undoubtedly a good outcome. The cases in which the research has a direct application to industry, for example to pharmaceutical corporations, means the taxpayer funds research yet the business sees the results freely, in essence a direct subsidy.

    Peer-review certainly has its known and recognised inconsistencies and a bias to supporting the status quo, and certainly alternatives ought to be explored. Your article does not distinguish open peer-review and post-publication peer-review. Open peer-review has the reviewer comments posted with the paper, in which the names may or may not be suppressed. Post-publication peer-review would have the paper formally published then open for comment and author correction if need be.

    The open peer-review method has been tried with some success in the physical sciences in which article criticism is largely technical. Certainly it works and the comments can offer useful insights for the capable reader.

    Post-publication peer-review is in my opinion a poorer idea. Not only does it remove any imprimatur of quality from a journal (material published has at least been considered of worth by reviewer/s and editor/s, so reducing a journal to the level of an unfiltered repository) but more critically the record of scientific progress is weakened. Managing version control may sound trivial, but alas here lie dragons.

    Richard Hecker
    CSIRO Publishing, http://www.publish.csiro.au
    Disclosure – I coordinate the publication of a dozen scholarly publications of which 11 are owned by learned societies based in Australia and overseas

  2. Thanks very much for your considered response Richard. I agree with your points and differentiating open peer review and post-publication peer review is particularly worthwhile. I agree with your appraisal of the dangers and difficulties.

    Your comment prompted me to consider if one of your journals, the NSW Public Health Bulletin, offers a slightly different approach to open access publishing. As I understand it the Bulletin’s production costs are at least partly supported by the NSW Department of Health, which enables open access to the publication without cost to the authors.

    Of course this investment in research and dissemination requires considerable vision and commitment on behalf of government agencies, but as OA requirements for publicly funded research increase could this approach be adopted elsewhere in government to ensure access goals are better realised? Pipe dream?

  3. richard.hecker says:

    The New South Wales Public Health Bulletin is fully sponsored by the Department. I agree with your characterisation of this as visionary. The usage metrics for this publication are startling, with astounding interstate and international usage. For highlighing public health activities and innovations in the State, and for communication between government and citizenry, I believe it it a good use of funding.

    The difficulty with such a model is exactly as you identify, in that it is is dependent on ongoing funding needing to run longer than political cycles. Commitment indeed.

    One critical matter of course there is still an editor, in this case internal to the Department, maintaining a tight control on quality and commissioning special issues. An open access model is simply the train – the Bulletin, as all journals, are is only as good as their drivers.

  4. Andrew Roberts says:

    The government usually pays for the cost anyway. The largest subscriber to journals would be universities and hospitals.
    There needs to be a change in thinking where the funding application includes a component for publishing. Some universities may be worried as they might have to decrease what I see as exorbitant administrative charges (I’ve seen up to 20% of the funding) for the research.

  5. richard.hecker says:

    The Australian Research Council has made some steps in this direction you suggest Andrew. For funding from 2012 onwards, section 5.2.2 of the grants states ‘Publication and dissemination of Project outputs and outreach activity costs may be supported at up to two (2) per cent of total ARC funding awarded to the Project.’

    Of course my self-interest hopes that there would be a preference to Australia-based publications, but if wishes were fishes…

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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
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AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
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Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
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Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
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2017 conferences
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