Is Open Access part of the War on Science? (the end of the monograph)

One of the problems with the age of open access and wikileaks is the idea that everyone can get something for nothing.  Stuff costs money.  Some things seem free, like Google, but as has often been pointed out, if you aren't paying for it you aren't the customer, you are what's being sold.  Google makes money by selling your interests to advertising.  That's OK by me, it's an exchange of information I'm content with.  But I'm not content when we start destroying important parts of our culture.

Academic publishing has provided an important role in moving progress forward in fields for several hundred years now via the mechanism of peer review.  It costs money.  It isn't perfect, peer review like any government can be corrupt to various degrees, but is generally better than anarchy.  Like a lot of industry right now, academic publishing has problems due to too much consolidation and greed.  But what's absolutely shocking to me is that academics themselves have been happily set like a pack of hounds to shred the majority of academic publishers who are relatively small, don't make very much money and are in this industry because they are interested in the content.  In fact, they are mostly run by people just like us, other academics.  The "hounds" metaphor breaks down here, we've somehow been set on ourselves; I don't think that's possible with dogs.

I can't believe that the Times Higher Education has published an article celebrating the end of the monograph.   A monograph is a small academic book where you completely communicate important ideas with the help of a wise editor in a way that people can read for centuries. By the nature of academic discovery, not too many people will ever care about the exact state of your field when you moved it incrementally forward, so these books are expensive to produce.  But if no one moves fields incrementally forward no progress is achieved.  This is one of the many services academic publishers have provided – they have supported monographs by taking profits from their journals.

Claiming that incremental progress on thousands of fronts by dedicated specialists is elitist and deserves to die is complete madness.  It shows no understanding of academia or scientific (or any other kind of cultural) progress.  Here's a letter from the Ecological Society of America (in pdf) explaining how new US regulations concerning open access are going to bankrupt them.  I only know about it because of academics on twitter posting that they "disagree" with it.  You disagree with helping an academic society not go bankrupt?  What is wrong with you?  Oh yes, feeding frenzy, baying hounds – that's probably a clinical problem.

There's been all kinds of insanity in the open access lines of reasoning.  How do we keep publishing?  By paying people to publish our articles.  People are happy to do this, (despite it being a moral hazard, as I've explained before.)  Yet they expect to be paid to review articles, which is insanely easier than writing them in the first place.   Listen, I'm always happy to be paid for my labour, but I work a lot harder when I write articles.  I want to be paid for my articles, not to pay for them!  And I certainly think people deserve even more to be paid for their monographs – those are significant services to our species and our culture.  Pretending that it makes sense only to ask for money for reviews is part of the general madness of the pack.

Is this really a part of the war on science?  I don't think it started out that way, I think it started out with the love of getting stuff for free, the hatred of having your articles rejected, the jealously of people at better academic institutions that can afford more journal subscriptions than the one you are at.  But now it is getting propagated by the US Government, some of the same organisations that have told my friends that no research funding should go to academics because they just waste time writing articles instead of producing stuff you can use.  A part of a government has decided it might be a great idea to kill the goose that produces golden eggs because that goose is moderately expensive to feed and doesn't only give the eggs to them.  The flock of geese, and they concur!  (Do geese bay?)

Academic progress happens through communication, review and critique.  It happens because we are driven by competition to do a better job and write a better article.  Part of what makes an article or monograph better is for it to be actually comprehensible, something a good editor and reviewers makes sure is possible.  The problem with being on a bleeding intellectual edge is that you invent concepts too quickly to be comprehensible by anyone else.  I just spent yesterday afternoon helping a brilliant PhD student figure out why he had done the work he'd done over the holidays and what it meant.  When you are really making progress it's hard to remember even the concepts you started out with.  Creating new academic content has to be a collaborative process, and the collaboration needs to include people who don't talk to you all the time, experts in communicating to larger audiences.

I know why I value academic publishers – because if you go through my many papers, the ones that are smartest (smarter then me really) are the ones that have had good editing and reviewing.  As a computer scientist, that's only a fraction of my output, so I can compare those articles to the ones with just quick reviews and no edits.  I'm glad to have a wide portfolio of publishing options, but I totally see where the value lies in the academic publishers, and I can see the loss our society will suffer if they are driven out of the system.

Update to two fantastic blogposts on this topic.
  • November 2014, EcoEvo Evo Eco tells us in  How to be a reviewer/editor 
    Having now worked with several open access journals, however, it is very clear that the entire goal is to make money. 
  • Actually this is a talk with data:  The costs for going gold in The Netherlands.  Guess what, it's huge, and universities and science councils are the ones paying – and therefore the public, because less is getting published.


Joanna Bryson said…
Like usual these days, most discussion of this post is happening on social media. So let me just be clear: this is not a defense of all publishers, particularly not Elsevier. "Like a lot of industry right now, academic publishing has problems due to too much consolidation and greed." – that was about Elsevier. But any publisher, (even Springer) that supports the academic process by cross-subsidising obscure but peer-reviewed publications with journals & subscriptions is doing some useful work.
Mark Wilson said…

Useful doesn't mean "maximally useful". The current system is clearly suboptimal. I don't know anyone with the values you imply above. I know many who want to see a better use of taxpayer money than giving it to profit making corporations to restrict access to readers of my their work. Try out for interesting discussions.
Academic publishing has provided an important role in moving progress forward in fields for several hundred years now via the mechanism of peer review. It costs money.

Peer review costs nothing. This is not what drives the cost of academic publishing.
Joanna Bryson said…
Just to be clear: I have no issue with "green open access", in fact I've actively supported it since 1994. My issue is with "bribe to publish" gold open access, and deliberately bankrupting our colleagues' publishing companies.
Joanna Bryson said…
Here is an amazing article about the real costs of "gold" open access (from 2014). Note that our universities pay almost all of the costs!