I’ll introduce this post by saying that, the more I age, the more my political/social/financial ideas turn somewhat libertarian. Not that I support Ron Paul, not that I support a teensy tiny impotent government, but I think that some models of business are antiquated and that many redundant bureaucracies need to be eliminated.
Why am I discussing politics? It’s because of how scientific journals work. A new proposal in Britain indicates we might be in for a change, and I think for the better.
How Journals Work
For at least the past several decades, if not century or two, most main-stream scientific journals would work as follows: Author writes paper, editor evaluates paper, editor rejects or sends out for independent review, reviews go back-and-forth for a bit, then paper is ultimately accepted or rejected.
At this point, or even upon initial submission, the author is required to sign over all copyright claims to the paper that they wrote. The journal then owns the copyright. The journal will publish the paper, maintain it in their archives, and has all rights of distribution and reproduction.
The author also has to pay the journal to publish their paper in what we call “page fees.” This can cost upwards of several thousand dollars (my last two papers were $2400 and $2600, respectively). In the past, authors were given personal “preprints” that usually numbered 50ish gratis after which they had to pay for more; they could then give these to colleagues. Otherwise, the authors had to pay for a copy of their paper. Nowadays, this is handled by author personal copy PDFs, and we are still legally forbidden from keeping copies of papers on our personal websites (though most violate this).
To recap: Author does work, then has to pay journal to publish their paper, journal owns all copyrights and author cannot distribute nor can colleagues get a copy unless they or their institution subscribes to the journal. The public getting free access? –forget about it.
Given my first paragraph in the intro, you can guess how I feel about this model. (I think it’s antiquated and outdated and we need something new, if you couldn’t tell). I understand that it was a model that probably worked well for awhile and I can understand the purpose in, say, the 1930s – and maybe even the 1990s – but not today.
It should also be noted that most of us are now funded through government agencies/institutes and that our grants pay both for our work. As in, public money paying for us to do research, then paying for us to publish them, but the publications being closed to people unless they pay for it yet again.
Open Access Journals
There are several journals that do not have paywalls, and I applaud them. Unfortunately, they are usually lower-tier journals that authors do not want to publish in because they have a low Impact Factor (IF) – a measure of how often articles from them are cited. (The journal Science has an IF of around 49, Nature has 52, while the highest IF planetary journal that’s NOT affiliated with either of those is around 3.5-4.0.)
There are some exceptions. The Astrophysical Journal is one of them, as is Astronomy and Astrophysics. These are two major astrophysics journals and their articles are generally free. But, no big planetary journal follows this model, and I do not know about other fields. Science and Nature, the two highest IF journals in the world, do not have open access.
The United Kingdom Takes Notice
Apparently, someone in the UK has taken notice of this and decided they agree with me. Well, not me specifically, but their thinking is similar to mine. To quote:
“Currently, scientists and members of the public have to pay the leading scientific journals to see research that has already been paid for from the public purse. Under new proposals the government will pay publishers a fee each time a paper is published. In return the research will be available to those who wish to see it. The total cost of the subsidy is estimated to be £50m a year which will be taken from funds that would otherwise have been spent on research.”
That last line makes sense to me. I’ve submitted two grants to NASA this year, and in the budget section, I had to guesstimate how many papers would come from the research, in what journal(s) I would publish them, and how much it would cost. Then this cost per year was added as a line-item to the budget. If I didn’t have to do that, it would make budgeting a tad easier and it would throw out several middlemen.
There are of course critics of this. And publishers will likely be ticked. I doubt the current model can survive too much longer, but I also doubt that the proposal in the UK will survive in exactly its current form, and I’m sure it will be even longer before it catches on in other countries.
I hope that it does, though, at least in some form that preserves the intent. I recently had a press release about some of my research, and several journalists asked me for a copy of the paper. I could not provide it to them legally because I had not been given my personal author copy yet, and I think that’s bad.