Open access, open innovation

What did open-access once mean in scientific literature, what does it mean now and how does it all play into innovation and the future of science?

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You are now reading an open-access publication. Decades ago, we went to a library and used a card catalog and bound indices such as Chemical Abstracts to identify scholarly works. We could then pull volumes off the shelves and gain enlightenment at a study carrel desk. Some of you will remember those. Later, we could even copy articles of special interest, or order them from a library assistant. Students at the time held printed material in high regard. We wanted to be able to contribute, and a first accepted paper was a welcomed transition to a very special club
While access was open via top-tier technical libraries, access for most citizens of this world was very restricted. The restriction reflected cost. The cost of access reflected the cost of production and only places in academia, government and commercial R&D could afford it.
Back then, new material was submitted for editorial and peer-reviewed, revised, typeset, corrected and printed. This could take the better part of a year. Some of us could afford individual subscriptions to the top few journals in our field which were substantially discounted to individuals vs. institutions. Costs rose, prices rose, budgets rose more slowly and many subscriptions were cancelled. Prices then rose further. Remnants of this system continue to exist in the form of the prestigious weekly publications Nature and Science. I’ve subscribed to both for over 25 years. I’ve come to believe this is a geriatric habit. Few younger colleagues join me. “Too busy. Everything is available online from the university.”
For now, these publications are exceptional. Every year, more and narrower discipline-focused journals—many with standing for over a century—stop printing altogether. Many others are created without ever having printed a single copy. A longstanding system has been turned on its head. Most of my colleagues support the notion that the public should have free access to publicly supported science and see open access (OA) as a component of open innovation. Articles and supporting data (at least those contracted by a public grant) should not be restricted by a costly site license or a dialog box requesting a credit card number.
The good news is that tables of contents and abstracts have achieved full global openness. The bad news is there are real costs of the editorial process, and customers expect to pay nothing at all for the information. Increasingly, the funder of the research now pays for its dissemination but not its consumption. Quality publishing costs money, as does quality science. It has been a decades-long process to flip from a paying reader to a paying submitter or other sponsor. We are not there yet. Arguments continue to rage as any industry is disrupted. What should the balance be between paying to publish (page charges) and paying to read (subscriptions)? Who owns the copyright, the authors or the publisher?
With completely open access, anyone can distribute electronic copies without limit. The first OA experiments began about 25 years ago with considerable skepticism. Several have risen to be quite prestigious and more are on the way.  In an earlier column, we’ve already mentioned the challenges to quality peer review (hard work, little time) and the disheartening prevalence of irreproducible science and withdrawn papers. The channels increase at a faster pace than quality science allows and some of them are quite shoddy.
The debate over peer review as a gatekeeper for science literature continues.  At least four approaches are considered. There is the double-blind peer review, where neither authors nor reviewers are known to each other. Then there is open peer review with both authors and reviewers identified. Open post-publication peer review suggests we publish science and then allow public comments by reviewers going forward. This approach may suggest book reviews on Amazon and the many analogs for hotels and restaurants. Imagine technical papers being rated with up to five stars and comments such as “weak statistics” or “no method validation” and “conclusions not supported by data.” The traditional peer review has unidentified reviewers, selected by sage editors, who review manuscripts submitted from known laboratories. When we get a good review, we like this approach well enough. Otherwise we debate the other three schemes. Some see conflicts of interest. Others see reviewer incompetence or vitriol. Like democracy, it’s very messy, but the alternative forms seem worse. It’s brutal now, but only the fittest will survive. Each unit of a very plentiful thing loses value, whether barrels of oil or scientific publications.
This issue is not yet settled as skirmishes flair up globally. One thing is certain: you cannot confidently believe what you read about science, news, medicine, food, dietary supplements or much else. Try to be a critical reader and not a cynical reader and you are less likely to be fooled. Don’t be caught by the old Mark Twain idea that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” Perhaps this proves the point, since there is no evidence that Twain either said or wrote this wisdom, yet most people believe he did.
Here at DDNews, we do it the old-fashioned way, with advertisers providing you with open access. We do not pretend to publish archival science. Happy 2018.

Those wishing to review OA policies can quickly gain a feel here:

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