Publish and be damned . . . or perish?

There have been some interesting articles recently in The Guardian recently about academic publishing. In his blog, Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers has vowed never to publish in or referee for any scientific journal published by the Dutch company Elsevier. He – and the majority of academics, I guess – are horrified about the huge profits that Elsevier (and other companies it has to be said) make from academic publishing. More than 10,000 academics have signed up to Gowers’ protest.

The current system depends on the goodwill of academics reviewing and editing scientific papers – essentially for free – while the publishers charge very high subscriptions for the ‘most prestigious’ journals. And it seems that some of their practices in terms of bundling journals are questionable to say the least.

In the UK, the Wellcome Trust is looking to establish an open access journal. Even that bastion of learning and wealth, Harvard University, is pleading poverty when it comes to journal subscriptions, and encouraging its academics to publish in open access journals.

Now, I’ve been publishing my research now for many decades – in scientific journals and books (as well as writing and editing books). I’ve never used an open access journal, and I guess now that I’m retired it’s highly unlikely that I ever will.

One thing’s for certain, open access does not mean free. Someone has to pay – and it’s usually the author who pays an upfront fee once a manuscript has passed through the normal peer review process and accepted for publication. Thereafter, everyone can access the work through the Internet.

One of the main arguments in favor of open access is that since much of the research is publicly funded – by the taxpayer – there is no justification for hiding it away behind a pay wall. In searching for information for this blog, and some editing and writing I’m doing in connection with a new book on genetic resources and climate change, I am unable to access the scientific papers I would like to without making a pay-per-view payment (usually around USD30 or so for many journals). I don’t have access to that sort of money. In any case, it seems outrageous to me to be charging a pay-per-view fee for papers that were published more than a couple of years ago. I’ve seen these fee requests for work published 30 years ago, and which lies locked up in the cyber vaults of the publishers.

Some open access journals, like PLoS (Public Library of Science) have become very succesful. I also saw reference to another which prides itself on how it was established and is run – the International Journal of the Commons.

But there’s another issue that is not addressed very much in the debate on open access, indeed on academic publication in general. Most academics progress through their careers on the strength of their scientific papers, and are expected to publish in journals with a high impact factor (whether or not perhaps one of these is particularly relevant to the field of study), and on the expectation that this will lead to more citations.

When I taught at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s I used to enjoy a weekly bulletin that was published (by the Education faculty, I believe), called Teaching News. In one issue there was a very interesting article about the dangers of using citation indices. The author argued that a scholarly paper of the highest quality on say, rural poverty in Wales was unlikely – just because of the nature of the study and the likely size of the readership – to be cited very frequently. On the other hand, a less erudite paper on the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s would probably be cited (condemned even) many times. A ‘raw’ citation index would never take into account the academic quality.

But impact factors and citations are taken into account in the promotion stakes. So while encouraging more use of open access journals (which I applaud) – and this is now a condition of some funding bodies – it flies in the face of promotion policies, the demands of university rankings, etc. This is an aspect that has to be addressed forthwith.

One thought on “Publish and be damned . . . or perish?

  1. Mike Jackson says:

    Today, I found a reference to an obituary of Erna Bennett, published in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, a Springer journal. I couldn’t read it – it would have cost me Euro 34 just to access! Outrageous. I used to be on the editorial board as well.


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