Despite flaws, open access is worth the price

Open-access journals haven’t had an easy go of it lately. In its current special issue, the esteemed journal Science has published an article detailing how Harvard biologist John Bohannon duped more than 100 of the freely available online scientific journals into accepting a completely bogus study that should have been thrown out by any competent reviewer. Bohannon’s implication is clear: Traditional print is still superior to open access.

However, there are several flaws with Bohannon’s experiment, the most glaring of which is that he didn’t submit his study to any traditional print journals like Nature or Cell. Without a control group, how can Bohannon say that open access journals are any more likely than traditional ones to let junk science slip through the cracks?  

Even if Bohannon had found a statistically significant difference, it wouldn’t change our view that open access represents an important step forward for the greater dissemination and democratization of knowledge. 

Open-access journals certainly aren’t perfect, but there are good reasons to support their growth.

The most obvious of these is the ballooning subscription fees of traditional print journals.

According to data provided by Susan Macicak, interim collection development officer for UT Libraries, EBSCO, the University’s serials agent, posted price increases of at least 20 percent across all disciplines from 2009 to 2013. Even more distressingly, a report put out by EBSCO on Oct. 4 predicted a continuation of this trend, with an expected increase of 6 to 8 percent from 2013 to 2014.

According to Macicak, UT has seen similar price increases in recent years.

“Those titles we get through [EBSCO] have inflated at an average of about 5.25 [percent] over the last five years, for a total increase in what we paid of approximately … 26.26 [percent] between 2007 and 2012 — which doesn’t figure in both serials cancellations and new titles started,” Macicak said. 

Ronda Rowe, UT’s head librarian for acquisition services, said that the most recent figure, for FY12-13, is around $9.8 million.

Any hope of change through price reductions is ill-founded, according to Georgia Harper, scholarly communications adviser for UT Libraries.

“In my opinion, the solution is unlikely to come from lower rates from the journal publishers,” Harper said. “The journal subscription market can be fairly described as dysfunctional. It does not operate according to the normal market forces that would keep prices low. These forces include, among others, competition and low barriers to entry into the market. Instead, the journal subscription market is characterized by, first and foremost, a monopolistic good — copyright. Copyright is a federally-sanctioned monopoly that allows those who possess a copyright to charge more than the market would ordinarily bear for a good or service.”

Less practical, but just as important, is the symbolic nature of free access to information. While we understand the need for scholarly publications to fund their operations, we can’t ignore the incalculable benefits that accompany the wide availability of knowledge. Not only does it allow research to reach more people, but it also provides an invaluable check against the sort of bogus science that Bohannon tried to pass off as legitimate. 

While open-access journals certainly suffer from their own problems, the benefits outweigh the risks and official measures should be taken to promote their growth. Such initiative must start at the university level, where the vast majority of scholarly output originates. Many American universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of North Texas in Denton, have adopted official policies in favor of open access. UT-Austin has a digital repository where student and faculty work is stored.

Policies alone, however, won’t be enough to swing the balance in favor of open access. The well-entrenched reputations of traditional journals will keep them in positions of power and influence over the future of the academic publishing world as long as researchers continue to attach greater prestige to them than to open-access journals.

Curt Rice, a UT alumnus and current professor in the department of languages and linguistics at the University of Tromso in Norway, recently wrote an article for The Guardian in which he criticized both the methodology and conclusions of Bohannon’s experiment

Rice expanded on his views in an email to the Daily Texan editorial board on Wednesday by offering some ideas for how open-access journals could entice more researchers to publish in their pages.

“One strategy [to enhance the prestige of open-access journals] would be to try to get some of the high prestige traditional journals to switch to the [open-access] model,” Rice said. “Then the prestige of that journal would just be exported to the [open-access] domain, and people would still want to publish there.”

“Another strategy is that people who are fairly far along in their careers start using more [open access] … But these are all on the ‘carrot’ side of the equation. One has to ask if part of the impediment is also inadequate use of the ‘stick.’ It sounds simple-minded in some ways, but [the National Institutes of Health], [the National Science Foundation], the [European Union], and lots of national research councils are now saying that publicly funded research must be freely available. That will force people to [open access], which in turn should contribute to raising the prestige and start leading others there [willingly].”

Harper agrees with this assessment.

“Prestige is a big factor in the individual decision of where to publish,” Harper said. “That factor is theoretically under our control, of course. We could determine the value of our faculty-author’s research without relying on journals to tell us what’s good and what’s not, but we seem unable to unlink an analysis of the worth of a faculty member’s research from the journal that accepts it for publication.”

However, Harper cautions that while there were definite flaws with Bohannon’s study, there is some basis to the perception that open-access journals aren’t quite up to the same standard as traditional print journals.

“Of course, [open-access] journals and subscription journals both rely on peer review, but many [open-access] journals still lag behind the established ones in their prestige,” Harper said. “I think it will take time for [open-access] journals to establish themselves as reliable indicators of the value of the research they publish.”

Admittedly, some open-access journals still need to make improvements before they can attract the sort of work that will bring them up in esteem. As Rice said, it’s going to take a carrot-and-stick approach to solve this problem. Someone is going to have to give researchers that initial nudge to make the switch. Luckily, there are events here on the 40 Acres that are helping to further that effort. Open Access Week 2013, which is being put on by UT Libraries later this month, attempts to “[promote] the movement for unimpeded accessibility to scholarly research.” Hopefully,  through this and other similar efforts, open access can find the acceptance that it needs to thrive.