Research needs to be made widely available. The methods we use to make research widely and freely available tend to turn it into dross.

Plagiarism Today weighs in on the paradox of Open Access vs Traditional Publishing. Pick your poison they conclude.

Academic publishing is, as its name implies, part of the academic community. We produce books for students to learn from, and, at the other end of the university pipeline, print the results of research so that frontiers of knowledge can be pushed a little bit further into no-man’s-land. Governments seem to love to chop the sausage up differently, but you can’t (or shouldn’t want to) separate teaching from researching. After all tomorrow’s researchers need to come from somewhere. And research needs to be published, accurately and ideally quickly, otherwise it remains as private musing. Instead of rewarding business initiatives coming out of research labs we ought to be concentrating on maintaining the links between writing up research and publishing it. It all costs money.

The idea of everything just being slapped unedited and unsorted onto a website would certainly solve the economic problem, but it doesn’t take a researcher to see that the resultant mass of words would be very hard to deal with. With so much research being done how is a grad student to know which bits are any good. Used to be you could count on anything coming from University Press A if you were in this subject, and anything fro University Press B if in that one. Gatekeeper has become a pejorative word: but a gatekeeper who lets everything pass in is not doing the job — some items deserve not to be allowed in. If everything is there with no critical discrimination brought to bear, then the entire corpus suffers a repetitional blow. The more you can’t trust in individual papers the less you will be able to trust the entire collection.

So much discussion of these access issues degenerates into bitching about Elsevier’s profits. It is entirely possible isn’t it, that Elsevier might be making excessive profits off the current system (I don’t want to get into whether they are or not) without that having to mean that the current system is no good and has to be replaced?* Subscribing to an academic journal, especially in the sciences, is expensive. This is not because rapacious publishers are rent farming, it’s because providing complex material to a small audience is inherently expensive. You can’t really expect The Journal of Fluid Mechanics to publish articles which might make it appeal to, say, the weekend fisherman, thus perhaps enabling it to print more copies and thus reduce its subscription price. If you need The Journal of Fluid Mechanics, you need it; if you don’t, there’s nothing that’ll make you spend anything to get it. As disciplines split into ever narrower specialisms (a force built into the very structure of academic research) so the number of people interested in any one journal declines. How to publishers cope? The only way they can — by raising prices. You can be fairly sure that the thought of laying off that lone journals assistant has been and is constantly being considered.

Open Access, by seeking to establish a similar system online just takes the problem and turns it on its head. People have to pay too much to buy the journal? Here’s an idea — make the authors pay to have their research published, and the subscription price can become zero. But this just shifts the problem from one place to another. Rather than having libaries pay huge subscriptions, we will now make research funding organizations kick in a bit extra to cover the costs of publication. The total cost to society remains the same — maybe a little more because of unemployment payments for a few publishers — but really nothing much has changed.

Maybe the traditional way of publishing academic research wasn’t the best we might devise, but just changing the paymaster doesn’t affect the system. We need to fund research. We need to make sure researchers write up their research. We need to educate them in the first place. We need to publish their research in a form which makes the information clearly available (this is called editing) and in some way which signals its importance relative to other research reports. Seems like a plan which shouldn’t be beyond the skills of some research group. Personally I think the method we have evolved is actually pretty successful. Instead of tinkering with online ideas, just keep what we have while we see if we can devise anything better. Many Open Access sites have made progress towards such a system: maybe that will end up being the way — but no-one should think that means that it’s free.

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* On the subject of rapacious publishers we should bear in mind that many academic journals are published by learned societies. Many of these subsidize the cost of producing their journal, and membership dues, which may include a subscription to the journal, might also be seen as a sort of subsidy.