10 July 2009

Do We Need Open Access Journals?

One of the key forerunners of the open access idea was arxiv.org, set up by Paul Ginsparg. Here's what I wrote a few years back about that event:

At the beginning of the 1990s, Ginsparg wanted a quick and dirty solution to the problem of putting high-energy physics preprints (early versions of papers) online. As it turns out, he set up what became the arXiv.org preprint repository on 16 August, 1991 – nine days before Linus made his fateful “I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones” posting. But Ginsparg's links with the free software world go back much further.

Ginsparg was already familiar with the GNU manifesto in 1985, and, through his brother, an MIT undergraduate, even knew of Stallman in the 1970s. Although arXiv.org only switched to GNU/Linux in 1997, it has been using Perl since 1994, and Apache since it came into existence. One of Apache's founders, Rob Hartill, worked for Ginsparg at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where arXiv.org was first set up (as an FTP/email server at xxx.lanl.org). Other open source programs crucial to arXiv.org include TeX, GhostScript and MySQL.

arxiv.org was and is a huge success, and that paved the way for what became the open access movement. But here's an interesting paper - hosted on arxiv.org:

Contemporary scholarly discourse follows many alternative routes in addition to the three-century old tradition of publication in peer-reviewed journals. The field of High- Energy Physics (HEP) has explored alternative communication strategies for decades, initially via the mass mailing of paper copies of preliminary manuscripts, then via the inception of the first online repositories and digital libraries.

This field is uniquely placed to answer recurrent questions raised by the current trends in scholarly communication: is there an advantage for scientists to make their work available through repositories, often in preliminary form? Is there an advantage to publishing in Open Access journals? Do scientists still read journals or do they use digital repositories?

The analysis of citation data demonstrates that free and immediate online dissemination of preprints creates an immense citation advantage in HEP, whereas publication in Open Access journals presents no discernible advantage. In addition, the analysis of clickstreams in the leading digital library of the field shows that HEP scientists seldom read journals, preferring preprints instead.

Here are the article's conclusions:

Scholarly communication is at a cross road of new technologies and publishing models. The analysis of almost two decades of use of preprints and repositories in the HEP community provides unique evidence to inform the Open Access debate, through four main findings:

1. Submission of articles to an Open Access subject repository, arXiv, yields a citation advantage of a factor five.

2. The citation advantage of articles appearing in a repository is connected to their dissemination prior to publication, 20% of citations of HEP articles over a two-year period occur before publication.

3. There is no discernable citation advantage added by publishing articles in “gold” Open Access journals.

4. HEP scientists are between four and eight times more likely to download an article in its preprint form from arXiv rather than its final published version on a journal web site.

On the one hand, it would be ironic if the very field that acted as a midwife to open access journals should also be the one that begins to undermine it through a move to repository-based open publishing of preprints. On the other, it doesn't really matter; what's important is open access to the papers. If these are in preprint form, or appear as fully-fledged articles in peer-reviewed open access journals is a detail, for the users at least; it's more of a challenge for publishers, of course... (Via @JuliuzBeezer.)

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Gunther Eysenbach MD MPH said...

You write:
what's important is open access to the papers. If these are in preprint form, or appear as fully-fledged articles in peer-reviewed open access journals is a detail, for the users at least.

This view implies that journals/publishers don't add any value, which is questionable. Most would argue that peer-reviewing, copyediting, XML-tagging, community building, sending out press-releases, promoting the articles/journals, building trust etc. - all these services a publisher provides beyond throwing a manuscript on the Internet - is certainly more than a "detail, for the users". At least for users who are not experts in the field.

Glyn Moody said...

Well, obviously it's an interesting question just how much value they do add - one that goes to the heart of the debate about open access and traditional journals.

As you rightly say, there are functions that publishers can perform that are ancillary to the main business of getting the information out there - and can even make money from - particularly in mediating between the researchers and less expert readers (although it's another interesting question how big that market/function is.)

But what I was intrigued by here was the fact that as far as the *researchers* and their peers are concerned, the preprint route seems to be better, and the incentives to worry about full open access publishing less. In the world of physics that seems to make the argument in favour of full open access more problematic.

Gunther Eysenbach MD MPH said...

I would argue that there are significant differences depending on the discipline / subject matter involved, and that it is probably not legitimate to extrapolate from high energy physics to the entire filed of STM publishing. For example, in the field of medicine, where the potential audience is very large and goes well beyond a small group of researchers/experts in a highly specialized field, things like peer-review and sending out press releases - roles fulfilled by open access journals but not repositories - are by no means "ancillary to the main business of getting the information out there", but rather at the core of knowledge translation from "bench to bedside", protecting the public from quackery/information tainted by commercial interests (peer-review) and at the same time helping knowledge uptake (press-releases, editorials etc).

Glyn Moody said...

Yes, I think that's a good point. In the HEP community, you're able to look after yourself (provided you can do the maths), but maybe in the fields of medicine there is a far wider, and less expert audience - GPs, for example. And so the mediating, filtering, authenticating role of open access publishers assumes a greater importance.

Indeed, it's probably no coincidence that open access began in HEP, with arXiv, and that this result is also in HEP.

phayes said...

“protecting the public from quackery/information tainted by commercial interests (peer-review)”

Yes, well I'm sure the enormous subscription rates charged by Elsevier - the home of quack journals and pharma advertising material masquerading as journals - are essential to its noble mission.


Glyn Moody said...

yes, rather weakens that argument, doesn't it?

Israel said...

I am a student in optical physics. What some of the above comments don't seem to understand is that open access is not mutually exclusive with peer reviewed.

I published in Optics Express, which is open access, but peer reviewed. Now, it is better than restricted access, but still has problems. Reviewers are not paid anyway, so that has no impact on a journal being open access.

My Optics Express submission cost $1600. I think that is quite expensive for what I received. Like I said before, they don't pay reviewers. My paper was not edited by OSA. It was not formatted OSA. I was required to have it properly formatted and edited for submission. So the only cost OSA has for Optics Express are bandwidth costs.

All that is really needed for an open access journal to work is to have the reviewers and a reputation to not publish quack papers. This really is a no-brainer.


Glyn Moody said...

@Israel: you're absolutely right. Indeed, I think probably all OA journals also employ peer review - after all, it's central to the way science works.