Socialism in science, or why Open Access may ultimately fail

February 27, 2009 at 7:00 am 27 comments

Open Access (photo by Gideon Burton) “Open Access is the best thing since sliced bread” I hear a lot of scientists say. The blogosphere overflows with enthusiastic support for OA. Hey, even I expressed some guarded optimism in some of my previous posts. This unconditional love for the NewestAndHawtest publishing model is very common, but is it really justified? More importantly still, will those same ardent OA supporters put their money where their mouths are? I am not so sure.

OK. So here’s the argument: Science needs to be made known through publishing. In order for science to be published, we need a team of people who will do the job of supervising the review process, editing, storing, and distributing bite-sized pieces of science called papers. These people need to be paid. Traditional closed access (CA) journals pay their employees from revenues they generate by selling their journal or the right to access it online. OA journals accomplish the same through selling space in their journal to people who want to publish in them. The main question is “Can OA journals publish high impact science, and also break even financially?“. On John Wilbanks’ blog on nature network there was a discussion a while ago on the profitability of OA journals, and I particularly enjoyed Martin Fenner‘s comment. He said that there he only sees four ways how high-impact OA journals could be making a profit (comments are mine):

Additional sources of income, e.g. ads on the website. The problem here is that the whole idea of OA is that anyone can download the paper and make any use of it they want. But that means that anyone can just post the paper on their website, and, by adding value, say automatic indexing of keywords iHop style, have people come to their website rather than the journal website to download it. And there goes the advertising money.

Much higher author fees (e.g. $5000-7500) or an author fee apply to every submitted rather than every accepted paper. From the point of view of authors, both solutions are fundamentally the same. Since a high-impact journal will have a high rejection rate, you will need to submit several times to such a journal to get accepted, so it doesn’t really matter whether you pay a few grand for the final accepted result or whether you pay a few hundred each time you submit. As long as you are being realistic about what will fly and what will not, you will be spending about the same amount per paper. But the trouble is, authors will not go for that. Imagine you have a piece of really hot, high impact data that you want to put on display. Are you going to go to a CA journal that will gladly accept your paper without making you pay a dime, or are you going to flesh out $5000 to have it published in an equally prestigious OA journal? I mean, c’mon. Let’s be realistic here for a moment. Of course you will pick CA. If you will excuse a little parable, papers in CA journals are like art exhibitions, while papers in OA journals are more like paid ads – if the stuff people have is worthy of an exhibit, they will very likely not pay for an ad. Also, the incentive on the side of the journal is all upside-down in the OA model. CA journals want to publish the best science possible, because that’s what their clients, the readers, will pay for. OA journals want to publish as much as possible, irrespective of the impact, because that’s what generates income for them. The client is different here – it’s the authors, not the readers.

Subsidies by other journals. That’s the PLoS model. They have a few high impact journals, and they have PLoS ONE, where anyone can publish any work irrespective of impact, as long as it contains broadly understood “good science”, and as long as they are willing to pay for it. Their high-impact journals generate losses, and PLoS ONE is supposed to generate enough profit to make up for that. That this is not yet the case was widely discussed in the blogosphere after an extremely inflammatory article in Nature. Never mind that, I don’t necessarily doubt that PLoS will break even in the upcoming years, but there is another major flaw in their model – there are only so many people willing to pay to publish low impact data. That doesn’t mean that PLoS will run out of customers, but it does mean that any other publishing group who wants to repeat PLoS’ (still uncertain) success will. Also, any for-profit OA group based on the PLoS model will be tempted to expand low impact bulk publishing and shrink high impact loss-generating journals.

Government/charity donors (I added this one). That’s how a lot of OA community efforts run right now (Science Commons, for example). That is not the way to go, because at some point the donors will want to see some tangible effects of their donations, and there aren’t likely to be many. Besides, any organization based on government subsidization is likely to become less efficient and end up sucking more and more of the taxpayers money.

And so I hope you see by now that there are fatal flaws to all possible solutions of the high-impact OA publishing perpetual money problem. There are people who point out that from a macroeconomic perspective CA and OA are really equivalent, because it is all taxpayers’ money, whether it goes for paying publishing fees or buying subscriptions for CA journals. But it’s microeconomic effects where OA breaks down. It’s a question of individual scientists deciding where to publish and individual editors deciding whether to accept a paper and whether to charge for it and how much.

From what I have said so far you might think I have become an opponent of open access. That I have turned to the dark side, so to speak, and become a minion in the hands of the evil Nature empire. That is, most emphatically, not the case.

First, I think that OA is a great paradigm for a lot of areas other than scientific publishing. I am really looking forward to the expansion of OA data and biological materials repositories, such as GEO for microarray data and Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank for antibodies. I hope that the whole Semantic Web hype will turn out to be well founded and that it will prove practical.

Second, I don’t deny that OA has its place in scientific publishing, but for the reasons I have outlined above, that place will probably lie in the low-impact end of the spectrum. We may see PLoS-like hybrids emerge, but it is extremely unlikely that they will take the publishing world by a landslide. Also, I acknowledge that the attempts to introduce the OA model in publishing are noble and carry a lot of potential benefits if by some miracle they succeeded. However, a lot of these benefits can be achieved much more easily without turning the whole world of publishing upside-down. For example if we want to give more people access to the newest scientific papers, let’s subsidize electronic subscriptions of high-impact CA journals to public libraries. If we want to hyperlink papers between one another, let’s expand current CrossRef schemes to not only include citation data, but also semantic realtionships between papers. And so on, and so forth… If only rather than dreaming of OA revolution all these intellectuals started thinking of how to do without it, we would do just fine.

And so to finish up I would like to make another parable. OA publishing is in a lot of ways like socialism. They are both intellectually and morally appealing at first glance, but they have some well hidden fundamental flaws, which make them unsustainable in the long run, unless enforced. Is OA publishing going to share the fate of the communist regime? Is it going to stay in vestigal form at the low-end margins of the scientific publishing world? Or maybe I am not getting it? Maybe OA is the best thing since sliced bread after all? Let me know what you think.

Here’s some more links to OA publishing discussion:

There are many, many more websites and blogs, mostly supporting OA, but the arguments are becoming repetitive after a while, so I will break up here, and leave the floor open to discussion.

Update: Please see Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of the series. Happy reading!

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Entry filed under: Computers in science, Philosophy of science, Scientific publishing, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , .

Promises and obstacles of open access science – Thus Spake John Wilbanks Socialism in science – Part 2 – I am wiser but not quite convinced

27 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stevan Harnad  |  February 27, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Self-interest in science, or why Open Access is optimal and inevitable

    http://cogprints.org/1639/1/resolution.htm#4.2

  • 2. David Crotty  |  February 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    You might be interested in the latest happening in the world of open access:
    JCI Ends Free Access

  • 3. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Stevan, thanks for commenting. The website you linked, however, doesn’t really address the economic and incentive problems I have listed. Who would want to edit your stuff (I am not talking about review here) if they weren’t getting paid for it? And if you pay them to do it, why would you rather not want to publish for free in a CA journal and accept the copyright limitations associated therewith. Most journals disallow preprint publication at least to some degree, and making the postprint article available immediately would definitely be a copyright infringement. Oh, and by the by, Marx also thought that the revolution was optimal and inevitable 🙂

  • 4. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    David, thank you for the link. Isn’t that a coincidence? Makes me think maybe I am not crazy after all.

  • 5. Peter Suber  |  February 27, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    (1) Some OA journals charge author-side publication fees, but most do not.

    (2) Researchers can make their work, even their peer-reviewed manuscripts, OA through repositories, not just through OA journals. Repositories charge no fees –not to authors and not to readers.

    (3) Several OA journal publishers are already profitable, including the largest (BMC). The money to support the rest is tied up in supporting non-OA journals.

    (4) There are more OA journal business models than you imagine. See the list growing at the Open Access Directory (a wiki).

    For a less tendentious intro to OA, see my OA Overview. For daily updates, see my blog, Open Access News.

  • 6. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Peter,
    (1) and (4) thanks for pointing out some more OA business models in addition to the ones I have already discussed. The link you provided is very interesting. I think the one model that I clearly missed was the “Pay for added value” model. Whether it is actually profitable, or whether libraries will simply cancel their subscriptions on the assumption that nobody really needs the high-res PDFs anyway is not clear to me at this point.
    (2) Putting papers in repositories is a violation of copyright if you publish the same paper in a CA journal (at least for most of them).
    (3) Could you please point me to a source saying that BMC is actually generating a profit? For Springer, the acquisition was a very minor part of their revenue, so they may have just purchased BMC for experiment’s sake rather than for profitability. AFAIK at the time of acquisition BMC was not yet breaking even.
    I want to stress that I am not saying OA journals have no future. It is just that they will never be able to take over the high impact, high rejection rate, high publication cost market, where journals such as Cell or Nature reign supreme, and where some OA journals, such as PLoS Biology may make some inroads, but never to the point of driving CA out.

  • 7. David Crotty  |  February 27, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    BMC is noted as being “pleasantly profitable” here:
    http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080702/full/454011a.html

  • 8. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    @ David #7
    Show me da money! Hearsay from an anonymous source is not exactly a financial statement, is it?

  • 9. David Crotty  |  February 27, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    I don’t know, I don’t have much reason to doubt it–the high-quantity, low-editorial-oversight type of material found in BMC (and PLOS-1) seems to be the ideal situation where the open access business model succeeds.

  • 10. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    @ David #9
    OK, I will give you that. But in your comment you are indirectly supporting my conclusion. High quantity and low editorial oversight means lower rejection rate, means low impact. Profitability of OA journals is inversely corellated with their “quality”.

  • 11. David Crotty  |  February 27, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I’m in general agreement with your conclusion (though I’d hesitate to start declaring certain journals to be of “high” or “low” quality–that’s up to the individual reader). But there are different types of publication where different business models work better than others (or work at all). The future lies in a hybrid ecosystem with a variety of publications each employing the optimal business model for its content and level of editorial oversight.

  • 12. Stevan Harnad  |  February 27, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    niewiap: “Most journals disallow preprint publication at least to some degree, and making the postprint article available immediately would definitely be a copyright infringement. ”

    See: http://romeo.eprints.org/stats.php

  • 13. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    @ David #11
    I couldn’t agree more with your “hybrid ecosystem” model. I am just appalled at the faithful disciples of OA who seem to think that economy doesn’t matter as long as everybody has access to everything.
    I put “quality” in double quotes to signify that I was generalizing. I am far from judging the paper by the journal it was published in, but there are some undeniable trends and an average paper in Cell is of more significance and contains more robust science than an average paper in PLoS ONE.

  • 14. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    @ Stevan #12
    I stand corrected. Nevertheless, over 30% of journals disallow postprint archiving, and I bet that most high-impact journals, at least in the biomedical field, do. Do you have raw data for this graph, ie. [journal name, grey/green/pale green] kind of table? I found the publisher data on the website, but I would like to look at individual journals. I would be very interested in actually perusing this data and doing some more research.

  • 15. Peter Suber  |  February 27, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    This is a response to niewiap in #6.

    * “Putting papers in repositories is a violation of copyright if you publish the same paper in a CA journal (at least for most of them).”

    This overlooks some of the most important progress of the OA movement.

    First, about 63% of surveyed non-OA journals already give blanket permission for their authors to deposit their work in OA repositories.

    Second, many of the most influential OA policies, at funding agencies like the NIH, and at universities like Harvard, require authors to retain a key right and use it to authorize OA. Authors may then transfer the rest of their rights to publishers, if they wish, and usually do. But when authors work under these policies, OA is authorized by the copyright holder, publishers receive less than the full bundle of rights, and publishers have no legal ground to claim infringement. This method secures permission for OA archiving at 100% of journals, not just the 63% which already grant permission voluntarily.

    * “Could you please point me to a source saying that BMC is actually generating a profit?”

    Unfortunately, Springer’s policy is not to comment on the profitability of its units. However, others have. The first to do so in this case was Richard Smith, in The Guardian.

    * “OA journals…will never be able to take over the high impact, high rejection rate, high publication cost market, where journals such as Cell or Nature reign supreme, and where some OA journals, such as PLoS Biology may make some inroads, but never to the point of driving CA out.”

    First, in a series of studies begun in 2004, ISI found that there are OA journals in the top cohort of impact factors in every scientific field. Here’s the first, but I’m sorry that I don’t have URLs for the later ones at the moment.

    Second, most OA journals are new, and take time to acquire the prestige and impact of the well-entrenched non-OA journals, even when they are excellent from birth. I say more about this in an article from last September.

    Third, OA journals can meet every standard of quality, impact, and prestige and still not drive all non-OA journals out of business. But driving non-OA journals out of business is not the goal. The goal is to enlarge the body of high-quality OA literature. As noted, we can achieve OA through repositories, lawfully, even for literature published in non-OA journals.

    Peter

  • 16. niewiap  |  February 27, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    @ Peter #15
    Thanks for the whitepaper link. I will be sure to read it.
    @ Everyone
    I am glad to be finding out all these new things from the comments on this post. It is a wonderful learning experience. Thanks.

  • 17. Stevan Harnad  |  February 28, 2009 at 1:52 am

    “Nevertheless, over 30% of journals disallow postprint archiving, and I bet that most high-impact journals, at least in the biomedical field, do.”

    Actually, most of the top journals are green.

    “Do you have raw data for this graph, ie. [journal name, grey/green/pale green] kind of table? I found the publisher data on the website, but I would like to look at individual journals.”

    Go to the publisher list — http://romeo.eprints.org/publishers.html — then click on any publisher, and you’ll get a list of their journals. To find more details than you want, go to the source: http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/ (but ignore the color codes, which are ridiculous).

  • 18. niewiap  |  February 28, 2009 at 2:08 am

    Stevan,
    Thank you for the info. I find it very interesting, but I have my reservations nevertheless. I am worried that if the system of making post-print publications widely available is implemented, which you clearly hope it will, CA journals will tighten their grip on copyright by introducing more restrictive policies. That is inevitable because these journals will have to be making money somehow and if anybody can just access all the papers online for free, these journals will go out of business. And so I would expect that as your system gains wider acceptance, more and more of the journals are going to turn from green to grey in your graphs. It is kind of like what RIAA is doing in the music business: the more people are (illegally) downloading music for free, the harder they try to stop that by introducing DRMs and suing violators.

  • 19. niewiap  |  February 28, 2009 at 6:36 am

    @ Peter #15
    I looked at the ISI study you linked to. I was particularly interested in the biomedical research field, since I don’t know the specificities of other fields. I have found tables 2 and 3 most educational and to my satisfaction they confirm my hypothesis rather than supporting yours. The two top OA journals in the field of medicine at the time of the study’s publication (2004): BMJ and JCI are no longer OA because the editors couldn’t afford it despite charging submission fees (see Dave’s comment #2). Another journal mostly quoted for its high IF, the “CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians” is review-centric, ie. doesn’t accept original research, and besides it publishes just 5-6 articles every two months, so American Cancer Society can afford to lose a little bit of money on it for the prestige it provides. Yet another high impact journal “Emerging Infectious Diseases” is published by a government agency, the Center for Disease Control, so profitablity is not an issue for them. It seems like the exceptions confirm the rule, doesn’t it? I have yet to see a major journal publishing original research (other than PLoS family) in the biomedical field that would do fine using an OA model.

  • 20. Anders  |  March 1, 2009 at 4:10 am

    Hi,

    Here are my thoughts – I think your thinking about “socialism” is somewhat off given:

    1) Those who pay for journal subscription are (mostly) government or foundation funded libraries. Since they pay for the production of the science too, it is rational for them to demand the product of the research they fund be Open Access as a prerequisite for the funding – to avoid paying a second time for access. So squeezing high profit publishers is simply a rational decision for funders of science.

    2) What you seem to think as the opposite of “Open Access socialism” is the 50+ years government enforced monopolies of copyright. Not exactly a capitalist miracle.

    The Wellcome trust has made an exellent analysis of the economic implications of Open Access publishing

    http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/About-us/Publications/Reports/Biomedical-science/wtd003181.htm

    Best
    Anders

  • 21. niewiap  |  March 1, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Anders,
    It is hard to argue (1) other than by saying that somebody MUST do the job of editing high profile journals and they HAVE to be paid. The more they are paid, the better they will do the job (on average). It really doesn’t matter in the end whether the government pays libraries to pay for the subscriptions or whether the government pays the researchers to pay for submission or whether the government pays the editors directly as in the case of government-subsidized journals. Except in the first case it promotes competition between journals to publish the best science at the lowest cost, and in the other two it does the exact opposite. The costs HAVE to be covered somehow, and they are substantial in the case of high-profile journals.
    (2) I am not aware of the government mandating any kind of monopolies in the area of scientific publishing. Even in the highest tiers of biomedical publishing there is a competition between top journals. The government actually limits their monopolies by making them release papers as OA after a certain period of time (6-12 months). PLoS journals are the best example that there is no monopoly and if somebody, even an OA journal, does a good editorial job and has a good business model, they can enter the market of top tier biomed publishing.
    I will be sure to look at the Wellcome trust analysis in more detail, as I have seen it referenced on more than one occasion. Thanks for the link.

  • […] final factor was a blog post from Molecular Philosophy discussing why the author felt Open Access Publishers are, if not doomed […]

  • 23. Rich Apodaca  |  March 3, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Very interesting piece.

    How about another analogy: Open Access is like the Electric Car.

    The Web is a market disruptor, but most in the scientific publishing industry are treating it as just another distribution channel. Ditto for many OA proponents. That’s the root of the problem with both OA and CA.

  • 24. niewiap  |  March 4, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Rich – thank you for the interesting link. I am not the only one who thinks that way! Yay!

  • 25. Stevan Harnad  |  April 8, 2009 at 3:38 am

    “I am worried that if the system of making post-print publications widely available is implemented… CA journals will tighten their grip on copyright by introducing more restrictive policies.”

    This is #32 “Poisoned Apple”: See Self-Archiving FAQ:
    http://www.eprints.org/openaccess/self-faq/#32.Poisoned

  • […] final factor was a blog post from Molecular Philosophy discussing why the author felt Open Access Publishers are, if not doomed […]

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