Will Open Access promote “plain junk”?

In the March 2008 issue of the Notices of AMS, the executive director of AMS, John Ewing, has a two page piece (to which I have linked in my previous post too) that argues (using rather strong language), that Open Access publishing is a bad idea (pdf).

Ewing lists four problems that he sees with Open Access business models (in which author’s pay to publish their papers). They are as follows:

  1. The author pay model is not simple;
  2. In the subscription model, the financial transaction happens between users/libraries and publishers, while, in the author-pay model, authors and publishers negotiate the deals; hence, scholarly publishing will become vanity publishing;
  3. In the author-pay model, the financial transaction happens before the piece is published, which (I do not understand the arguments well here), somehow, will promote plain junk; and,
  4. The author-pay model will promote large publishers (and that is the reason why they are promoting this model).

Ewing goes on to say

It is not how we pay, but rather how much we pay!

And he ends his piece eloquently, with a dig at Open Access journals and its proponents — especially, the biomedical journals — in the last two paragraphs (and mentions PLoS by name earlier in the piece):

We are therefore heading in the wrong direction. Scholarly journals are sick and they need attention. But instead of following a regimen of reasoned and disciplined remedies–instead of driving down prices by the steady, concerted actions of  authors, editors and librarians–we are bleeding the patient with open access models. (…)

It is ironic that those leading us down this path of folk remedies and faith healing come from the biomedical sciences.

Fortunately (and, rather ironically), Notices of AMS itself is a sort of Open Access publication (though, it is not the authors who pay the charges):

The Notices is supported by dues paid by AMS members, who have provided access for all mathematicians throughout the world.

In any case, as I noted in my previous post, I do not agree with Ewing, and here is why.

Ewing, surprisingly, does not seem to take into consideration the most important process involved in scholarly publishing, namely, peer review. Once peer review is taken into consideration, we see that his points 2-4 are flawed (and his first point, as he himself agrees is just a statement about complexity and has got nothing to do with quality of publishing). Scholarly publications derive their prestige based on the credentials of the editors, the peer review process, the impact factor (which, in some sense, indicates how seriously the publication is considered by the community), and, what importance evaluation committees pay to the publications based on the three factors listed above. If a journal is edited by leaders in a field, and if the peer review process is known to be rigorous, if the impact factor for the journal is high, and, if “Wow! You have a paper in Journal X!” is the general response, then, the users/librarians have no option but to buy the journal. Thus, it is ridiculous to pose the problem as if it is a pure business transaction and equate Open Access author-pay models with vanity publishing or to argue that they would somehow promote junk, or to say that established publishing houses would get monopoly.

Thus, a bit of reflection indicates that the most important question is not about how or how much we pay (to which questions, to my mind at least, the answer is simple — the answer to how much should be less, and how we pay is important), but, what quality. In other words, are there strong reasons to believe that the Open Access publications will improve the quality of publications? The answer is yes — as long as the peer review process is made more transparent, and as long as there is an active community and discussions surrounding the publications — both of which can be implemented rather easily in the Open Access model, provided the journals are also e-Journals. In that sense, I believe that journals like PLoS and their discussion boards, as well as online communities like iMechanica are already giving strong indications that Open Access would not only be successful, but is the only reasonable way to go.

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