“Publish Open Access or perish?”

Picture taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access

Yesterday I was at the KNAW dialog “Publish Open Access or perish?“. Open Access (OA) is somewhat of a personal interest of mine, and I’ve been following this debate for a couple of years now. The discussions here were interesting, as questions were raised about the implications for researchers, and humanities scholars specifically.

The keynote by Cameron Neylon (PLOS) was very interesting, who started by saying that OA is not a matter of discussion anymore, but a matter of getting the details of implementation right. Yet, his keynote focussed on what the main arguments of OA would be for researchers. In addition to the classic argument of giving the taxpayer the research output they already paid for, he argued that OA increases the scale of one’s research. As more people can read your research, more people can share it, provide feedback and reuse it in ways you didn’t think of yet. Because of this, not only can research be performed much faster, research becomes qualitatively different; different questions can be asked and answered in different ways. An example is Galaxy Zoo, where tens of thousands of people collaborated on research.

A question I remained with is whether this argument is compelling for humanities scholars. In contrast with many technical researchers who work in groups, where adressing problems might be solved more easily by collaboration with others, humanities scholars (especially in history) can conduct research like ‘lone wolves’; dive into an archive, spend lots of time collecting material, publish as a book after a period of deep analysis. What has larger scale to offer here? Is the wisdom-of-the-crowds approach interesting for the humanities? Perhaps hobbyist-experts might get more easily in touch with scholars, I’m not sure.

The second keynote by Martin Rasmussen (Copernicus Publishing) gave an insight in an OA publisher. He started with the question “Do we still need publishers at all?” to which his answer was positive. However, publishers are no longer content providers, but service providers. An interesting feature he showed was their peer-review system; an article would be published online immediately as a discussion-paper, after which peer-review would be public (although reviewers remained anonymous), and allowing for comments from other readers; the article can then be updated in response to feedback received. Eventually, the article could be rejected, or published as a final-paper. This system allows for the publication process to be rapid (the paper is immediately available online), yet thorough (it’s reviewed publicly by invited reviewers as well as other readers).

Copernicus Publishing works with the author-pays model. An interesting discussion that arose was whether this model leads to lower quality of research; publishers might want to publish as much as possible, as more papers means more income (leading to so-called predatory publishers). A counter-agument is that  journals from such publishers will have low impact-scores, and researchers will want to publish in good journals anyway. However, there might be incentives for publishing quickly in a predatory journal, such as trying to meet the quotum for number of publications. Moreover, the burden of review is put on the reader; an article that’s been published isn’t necessarily already reviewed, nor does it mean it’s a good paper. This OA model might as such introduce much more noise, especially in Google Scholar. My conclusion therefore was that indeed lower quality research becomes available, although only few participants agreed; the general assumption was that this would solve itself and should therefore not be considered an issue.

These two questions definitely stuck to me, and I hope to gain more insight in them in the future.

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