Open Access Brainstorm

So I know that the classic subscription vs. open access journal debate has been going on for a long time, but every now and then something pops up to bring it to the front of my brain. This time, it is a tongue in cheek segment on PhD comics called:

Nature vs. Science pt. 1
Nature vs. Science pt. 2
Nature vs. Science pt. 3
Nature vs. Science vs. Open Access

I remember a year back, at ACS New Orleans, sitting in a chem. ed. session and hearing a couple editors from nature talk about the move away from print journals, and the increasing popularity of open access journals.

Admittedly, in the beginning I was all for open access journals. I greatly disliked the fact that journals, and the editors running them, are get to decide what science is “best” when they are likely not doing any research of their own. It seemed (and to a small extent, still does) an awfully ridiculous concept: we do original research, give it to journals for free, and they bundle a lot of it together and sell it back to us. I mean, I think certain people went to jail not too long ago for running schemes of that style.

But now I have started to think otherwise. I don’t think open-access journals will be the answer (at least not in their current state) simply because we are…lazy. Bare with me for a bit, and I will explain.

You see, I think that open access journals would ruin the prestige hierarchy of journals and they would all devolve into something like arxiv, which regularly get crackpot submissions like Marinov’s element 122 claim. Now I am not trying to speak against arxiv here; it is important and useful, and has it’s place among our tools for disseminating scientific knowledge throughout the community. However, Marinov’s paper is a good example of why serious peer review is necessary prior to publication.

Now some open-access journals like Plos One employ a technical peer review to filter out that sort of science-ish junk, but their revision does not look at the impact of the research. Without this, all submissions that pass a technical review will be published (eventually). Thus the selectivity, or prestige, of a journal is lost.

Why is such a thing important? I mean, why do a handful of arbitrary journals get to have all of the top papers published in them? If we didn’t charge for the journals, would we care which journal published the “big” papers? Well, I think the answer to that question is, yes we still would care. The fact is that we use the selectivity of the journals as a measuring scale of the research itself. We tend to read mostly the top journals in our field because we can skim the cream off the top relatively quickly and easily.

No one would ever have time to wade through 20 journals of physical chemistry, reading paper after paper, wondering if/where that ground breaking discovery was published. We would rather open up Nature and find out in 50 quick pages. Now I am not talking about a graduate student reading up on the specific idea he is working on and going through hours of literature searches. That isn’t going to change anyways. I am talking about the really big, important discoveries that would otherwise get buried under the volume of less important research that is published at the same level because impact is not considered.

How many bucky-ball like discoveries would have been overlooked because of distracting papers on stuff like Metal Oxide Films Produced by Polymer-Assisted Deposition for Nuclear Science Applications?

To get around this, some people have suggested letting people vote on the best or most important papers published, in order to determine impact that way. So instead of a journal gaining prestige, the paper itself does. This does seem more…correct, to me, than the current system. However, I wonder how well this will work. Even if the voting is limited to scientists, you still run into the problem of not everybody reading every paper (to ensure educated voting).

So say people simply submit their favorite papers into a poll: I submit one, Mitch submits one, Noel, you, your friend, etc. Say tons of people submit their favorites. Lets say, by some stroke of mad luck, that enough people submit papers that you feel you have a good sampling of the population, but not so many people submit papers that you feel your voters would never have the time nor interest to read each one. The voting may work the first time. It may work the second time. Hell it may even work a third time. But soon, like certain social bookmarking sites, some people will submit more often than others. After a while, the majority of the submissions consistently made by the same group of people, over and over again. Eventually, people only start to read papers submitted by their favorite submitters…because we are lazy.

So, Plos One, the “few individuals at the top journals that have all the power” are back, and the system hasn’t really changed. Except…oh wait, these guys aren’t paid to do a good job. Nobody in this system is paid to do a good job, w/o subscriptions. Unless, seriously, the journal can pay it’s editors through advertisement revenue. I wonder how well that will work. I figure it may work well at a small scale…a few open-access journals here and there. But scientific journals make up a fairly large industry: can it really be supported through banners and flash and many, many, many, many, many, many clicks?

Let me know what you think.


  1. This is one of my favorite topics. I really don’t think the debate in the next 10 years will be whether open access is better than subscription. Subscription services will always be better, but that is not the point.

    Like you said, the point is to find where the good chemistry articles reside, but also not have it determined by a small set of editors. The open access or subscription debate misses this point completely.

    For ChemFeeds I keep track of all the outgoing traffic to the various articles. I don’t track who clicked what just the total volume of traffic out for a particular article. For the past 30 days this chemistry paper had the most traffic: Synthesis of Poison-Frog Alkaloids Since chemfeeds is so small (~150 uniques per day) this tells me more about my audience than the quality of the article. But it is a metric that could be useful as the website gets more popular. But this is what I term shotgun metrics, because this one is based on the behavior of everyone from viewing the same set of graphical abstracts.

  2. Yeah, I was going to mention that Mitch and I had tried the public voting on papers tactic a couple years ago. Anyone remember Chemmunity? It didn’t really work out too well, and these guys are planning to try the exact same thing.

  3. antediluvian says:

    I agree 100%. People don’t understand what one of the motivating factors for scientists is prestige, because it certainly isn’t money. Take away the well respected journals and make everything open source and what do you have? You would get a cluster that noone could care less about. Ask a chemist whether he is happier to publish in JACS or Tetrahedron Lett.

    Open source is for people sitting in armchairs who would love nothing more than to get science for free. Without having to slug it out with nature.

  4. I think that in an opensource environment the “good” papers will (eventually) naturally find a common place, just as they do now. After all, it is beneficial for them to be in one place and we scientists recognize that FACT. I guess, in my opinion, the opensource challenge is still finding way to weed out the crap, or at least toss it in the publishable but not that cool pile.

    In other words, if someone were to tell me, “You should publish here or there because people will expect to see high (or low) impact papers there” I would do it. Like you said, I’m lazy. So where is good and bad?

    Perhaps publishers could expediate the process (or just some random guy i guess) by statistically analyzing the number of comments on papers in different opensource journals. Anyways, with enough publications and people thinking about “the best” way to manage opensource publication there is bound to be some solutions. Looks like chemfeeds is nearly doing this, I’m probably just out of the loop.

    Anyway, nice post and thanks for turning me on to chemfeeds.

  5. Pingback: Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » ACS Day 2: March 22nd

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