Building Blogs of Science

Open Access publishing shouldn’t be this hard

Posted in Science, Science and Society by kubke on April 5, 2014

We put a man on the moon about half a century ago yet we still haven’t solved the problem of access to the scientific literature.

“moonstruck” CC-BY Adnan Islam on Flickr

I was invited to speak at the New Zealand Association of Scientists meeting this year. The theme was “Science and Society” and I was asked to speak about Open Access from that perspective.

The timing was really good. Lincoln University published their Open Access Policy last year, Waikato University released their Open Access mandate a couple of weeks ago, and the University of Auckland is examining their position around Open Access. New Zealand is catching up.

I opened my talk by referring to the New Zealand Education Act which outlines the role of univeristies:

…a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning
[New Zealand Education Act (1989) Section162.4.b.iii] (emphasis mine)

I argued that those values could be best met by making the research outputs available under Open Access as defined by by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, that is, not limited to “access” but equally importantly, allowing re-use.

After summarising the elements of the Creative Commons licences that can support Open Access publishing, I invited the audience to have an open conversation with their communities of practice to examine what values each place on how to share the results of our work.

My position is that the more broadly we disseminate our findings the more likely we will achieve the goals set out by the NZ Education Act to maintain, advance, assist in the application of knowledge, develop intellectual independence and promote community learning. I am also of the position that this is what should be rewarded in academic circles. I think that. as a community , we should move away from looking for value in the branding of the research article (i.e., where it is published) and focus instead on measuring the actual quality and impact of the research within and outside the academic community.

How do we measure quality and impact?

cc-by aussiegall on Flickr

At times I feel we have we become lazy. We often stick to using impact factor as a proxy for quality instead of interrogating the research outputs to understand their contribution and impact. Impact factor may be an easy metric – but it is not one that measures in any way the quality or impact of an individual article, let alone of the researchers who authored it. It is just an easy way out, a number we can quickly look at so we can tick the right box. As a metric it is easy, quick and objective. As a metric of value of an individual piece of work it is also useless and, because of that, it inevitably lacks fairness in research assessment.

What does this have to do with OA?

By the end of the conference I couldn’t shake the thought that the barriers to Open Access may not be financial and the costs of publication fees may be the least of our problems. (This issue of cost just keeps coming up.) I can’t but wonder if the cost Open Access might just be a red herring that lets us avoid the real (and bigger) issue: quality assessment. Open Access may help our articles have a wider reach but, except for a few titles, Open Access journals are not recognisable brands. If we are forced to stop looking at the “journal brand” we will be forced to assess the individual articles for their intrinsic value and impact. And, although it may lead to better, more valid, assessment, it is also a big and difficult job.

A lot of what was said today at the conference revolved about the value of New Zealand science (and scientists) to society and the importance of science communication. We spoke about the importance of evidence-based policy, the need to be the critic and conscious of society and the challenges of working with the public to build a trust in scientific evidence despite its uncertainties. We expect politicians and society to do the hard job of making decisions based on evidence. I couldn’t help but ask whether we, as a community of scientists, can live up to those standards.

Can we ditch the bad and easy for the good and hard?

We put a man on the moon. Solving the issues around open access and research assessment must certainly be easier to solve. Are we ready to put our money where our mouth is?

 

14 Responses

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  1. Wikispecies editor (@stho002) said, on April 7, 2014 at 11:37

    Some might doubt your claim that we did put a man on the moon! :)

    I still think that OA is a bad idea. In my area of scientific interest, the issue is not so much access to outputs, but actually generating useful outputs in the first place (and, indeed, metrics are bastardising the outputs so that they are becoming LESS useful).

    I think part of the problem is that boards want the institutions that they govern to complete on a GLOBAL level, but NZ is a small and not very rich country, so it is futile to compete globally (in quantitative terms) with the likes of USA etc. It would be far more sensible for boards to realise this, and to reconfigure growth and improvement metrics to a local context. There is no good reason, for example, why the number of new species described by a taxonomist cannot be used as a valid metric.

    • kubke said, on April 7, 2014 at 19:38

      Thanks for you commen. If I may I will try to break it down because I am having trouble understanding your argument.

      I still think that OA is a bad idea.

      May I ask why you think so?

      In my area of scientific interest, the issue is not so much access to outputs, but actually generating useful outputs in the first place (and, indeed, metrics are bastardising the outputs so that they are becoming LESS useful).

      In principle access has never been a problem – the cost of access has by different individuals/institutions. I would think that everything that is published can be accessed at the right price. Are you saying that in your area of scientific interest this is not the case?

      Generating useful outputs is an issue separate from OA – isn’t it? As are the metrics that are used to measure quality. I agree that it is a problem, I just think the solution can’t be found by framing quality within the context of toll/open access.

      I think part of the problem is that boards want the institutions that they govern to complete on a GLOBAL level, but NZ is a small and not very rich country, so it is futile to compete globally (in quantitative terms) with the likes of USA etc. It would be far more sensible for boards to realise this, and to reconfigure growth and improvement metrics to a local context. There is no good reason, for example, why the number of new species described by a taxonomist cannot be used as a valid metric.

      I am not sure that size has to do with global competition. I think a small economy can compete globally (and there are many examples that support that), but the spectrum over which it might be able to do that will be narrower. Perhaps we agree here that governing bodies might need to be realistic as to what can and cannot be achieved and then be open (as in the example you provide) of what a “valuable contribution” might look like.

      • Wikispecies editor (@stho002) said, on April 12, 2014 at 11:17

        I think OA is a bad idea because it may well result in more public money being used to pay publication fees for stuff that only a few specialists are interested in reading. It is good news for publishers, but bad news for general public. Low popularity publications may get no more reads OA, than they would otherwise. But with OA, instead of the publisher taking the financial risk, the public takes the risk!

        I think you missed the point of my next comment. I was saying that access ISN’T a problem. What IS a problem is bad metrics influencing what sort of things do or don’t get published. For example, taxonomy is the foundation of biology, but it doesn’t fare well in citation metrics, so less of it is being funded.

        In my experience, governing bodies haven’t got a clue about the science that they govern. One board member of a CRI once said exactly that to me, i.e. “I don’t know anything about the science, of course, I own a fashion company!”

      • kubke said, on April 13, 2014 at 17:38

        I think we’ve had this discussion before – I still think that the data points in the other direction. Firstly, most of the cost of publishing is paid by the public indirectly through library costs via public funding for universities plus research funding overheads. The cost of publishing per paper is higher on toll model than on OA model so it seems the data would point to overall savings to the public. I am not sure I buy your argument. Do you have any data to back that up? I would be really interested in seeing some analysis that shows a benefit to the traditional toll system.

        I am not sure how I misinterpreted your next comment. You again say that access isn’t a problem. I still think it is- because you cannot access the material without paying for it. For many that prevents them from accessing the material.

        I think we agree on metrics. I am pleased to see that this is something we all seem to agree with and are trying to solve.

      • Wikispecies editor (@stho002) said, on April 14, 2014 at 15:11

        Well, the overall relative costs of OA vs. toll are going to depend on lots of detailed factors, such as the proportion of highly specialised literature which few libraries currently hold, and even fewer people read. If everything (or a big proportion) was really popular (lots of people really wanna read), then OA would be a good thing. Otherwise not. All I meant by access not really being a problem is that even under toll, you can often source a free read from someone you know. At any rate, even allowing for research money spent on access of toll literature, my first comment regarding OA costs applies, so the current toll model might actually be cheaper overall in the long run.

      • kubke said, on April 16, 2014 at 07:35

        All I meant by access not really being a problem is that even under toll, you can often source a free read from someone you know.

        That would be true – you can ask the authors to provide you with a copy and in a small field/community I do not know how often the authors respond. Is it sustainable? If you are suggesting obtaining copies from colleagues that are not authors themselves, then with most journals that would go against the TOS, and I can’t advocate for that solution in general, let alone when I am providing advice for policy.

    • Wikispecies editor (@stho002) said, on April 19, 2014 at 12:05

      So, you want to spend a mountain of public money freeing up every little publication that anyone might ever want to read! So if the OA cost is set at 10 reads per paper on average, and a thousand papers per year only get 1 or 2 reads regardless, that doesn’t seem like good spending!

      • kubke said, on April 19, 2014 at 22:16

        Yes. I’d rather spend a mountain of public money to free up every publication than spending an even higher mountain of money to keep them in the toll system. Averages are averages – by definition there will be articles that will be on both sides of it. On average there is a savings, even though at the individual article level some will be associated with “savings” and some will not. Calculating the costs on “averages” takes into account those poorly read articles. Not sure what the issue is. To suggest that only articles that receive over a certain amount of views should be placed in OA while those receiving less views should not would require a crystal ball.

    • Wikispecies editor (@stho002) said, on April 20, 2014 at 10:47

      I shouldn’t have used the word “average”. It is entirely unclear at what level publishers will set OA fees, but you can be sure it won’t be at the low end! If they did set it at the “average” level, then all would be well, but will they?

  2. Mark C. Wilson said, on April 6, 2014 at 06:58

    Agreed – it has been clear to me for a long time that the academic publishing community needs to realize that “we have met the enemy, and it is us”. Change the incentives to align with what we should really be doing (rather than accumulate points for publishing papers no one reads in almost arbitrarily defined “good” venues), and most of what we want will follow. Don’t change them, and no real change will occur in a reasonable time-frame.

    • kubke said, on April 6, 2014 at 09:20

      the question is why is it so hard to change the incentives? We all seem to agree that IF and branding is not a good measure – yet what is stopping us from changing the metrics we use? I need to find myself a sociologist of science?

      • Deborah Fitchett (@deborahfitchett) said, on April 14, 2014 at 11:26

        Because academics are paid by the university and the university is funded by the government and the government wants One Number To Measure Them All in order to disburse that funding. Change has to start with PBRF, but it’s no good lobbying about how IF is a literally, scientifically-provenly, meaningless number without being able to propose an alternative that’s as easy to administer. And that’s probably not possible because being easy to administer requires a simplicity that doesn’t exist in reality. So IDK.

      • kubke said, on April 16, 2014 at 07:37

        Thanks Deborah – you are hitting it in the head. We need an easy metric – yet that might not be possible. The question then is – what do we do? What puzzles me is how we keep relying on metrics that, as you say, have be proven to be meaningless. What is it that makes us comfortable with ditching the critical thinking when we enter the assessment room?

      • Wikispecies editor (@stho002) said, on April 21, 2014 at 11:45

        Realistically, we are stuck with an imperfect metric. Quality, of course, cannot be objectively quantified (by very definition). So, the individual academic needs to juggle two balls: (1) the metric that they are forced to work under; and (2) the desire (hopefully) to maintain high standards of quality (by their own subjective standards). Personally, I admire those who value (2), and I despise those who don’t.


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