The Other Academic Freedom Movement

What's to come?
Feb. 9 2012 11:18 AM

The Other Academic Freedom Movement

How scientists broke through the paywall and made their articles available to (almost) everyone.

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The open-access movement has been gathering steam. Harvard adopted an open-access policy in 2008. The policy requires faculty to grant their institution a nonexclusive right to freely distribute their scholarly articles. Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, and the University of California-Berkeley followed in September 2009; as did Princeton in September 2011. But the university policies allow their researchers to apply for waivers from the open-access requirement if publishers won’t let them make their papers available. The current NIH rule and the broader Federal Research Public Access Act have no such loophole.

The open-access movement has strong momentum. After a hacker was arrested in July 2011 for breaking into JSTOR, an online archive of journal articles, the company opened up first some of its archive from before 1923 to the public, then later granted limited open access to more recent articles. In England, the Royal Society made its historical archives, including its Philosophical Transactions, first published in 1665 and thus the world’s oldest peer-reviewed publication, open-access in October. More recent publications were also made more available, albeit after (at most) a one- to two-year post-publication embargo. Google Scholar has wide coverage and frequently gives the public access to full text, even of subscription-gated papers, via researchers’ websites (though it omits PDFs over 5 megabytes, irking researchers in disciplines like archaeology that rely on larger image files). JSTOR’s future in the world of Google Scholar is tenuous.

Of course, most scientists already get unfettered access to the journals they need through their institutions. But the current ecosystem of publishing still is not particularly healthy for them. Scientists joke about things like the minimum publishable unit (also least publishable unit, or, for short “publon”). Maximizing the number of publications while minimizing their intellectual content doesn’t serve any broader interest. But it’s the inevitable result when the number of publications (which is objectively verifiable) becomes disproportionally important in relation to the quality of insight. Academic administrators have grown increasingly concerned with the “impact factor” of journals—i.e., how often the journal is cited. This, in turn, has led to pressure on researchers to cite for the sake of citing.

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The progress of science won’t turn on the publishing model. Journal articles are the shadow of science, not science itself. But by taking power away from journal publishers, open-access (and public-access mandates) should make for a healthier scientific ecosystem. It won’t immediately fix the “publon” effect, but charging for publication should exert at least a slight pressure on scientists to actually have something to say.

Elsevier and other commercial publishers have an incentive to encourage the publication of as many papers as possible, regardless of the quality. In a statement, Elsevier says laws like FRPA “could undermine the sustainability of the peer-review publishing system.” These claims are easily mocked.

The shell game here is the oldest one in politics: an attempt to pass off the parochial interest of the few (journal publishers) as a broader societal benefit. The debate in Congress cuts across ideological lines—the competing bills have Republican and Democratic co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate. It should be mentioned here that Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a sponsor of the Research Works Act, got $15,750 in donations from the Elsevier and its executives in the last two years (out of a total of $119,300 that the company and its executives spent on congressional races). The bills are likely to be held up in Congress for quite a while. The White House, in the meanwhile, is conducting its own review of the issue.

Smaller journals will suffer in coming years, as they give way to informal sharing among colleagues and lower-margin open-access replacements. Top-tier publications like Nature and Science will survive; in fact, the publishers of both journals have publicly said they oppose the Research Works Act. They will survive because they have acquired such stature that a result is no longer published in Nature or Science because it’s important; it’s important because it was published in Nature or in Science.

Whatever the White House ends up saying, and even if Congress remains gridlocked, the movement toward open publishing now seems irreversible. In 1996, Ginsparg said that it wasn’t a question of if, but when “commercial publishers accustomed to large pre-tax profit margins” would find themselves unable to compete with a “global raw research archive” combined with “high-quality peer-reviewed overlays.” The answer to his question seems clear: now.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Konstantin Kakaes is a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the e-book The Pioneer Detectives: Did a Distant Spacecraft Prove Einstein and Newton Wrong? Follow him on Twitter.