Open Access (perspective from a non-expert on academic publishing)

January 10th, 2012 by Andrew

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I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about open access research, bemoaning government steps to reduce it, and encouraging more access generally. I don’t have a horse in this race yet, but I think my different perspective, as an aspiring academic researching, is worth voicing. I may come off as ignorant to those who are better informed, but please feel free to correct any misperceptions in the comments. I guess this keeps me out of the “better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” camp. I guess I prefer, “better to be thought a fool, than to keep your mouth closed and stay that way forever.” I will frame the issue a bit below, but for those already familiar, feel free to jump to My Perspective.

For anybody who isn’t familiar with the academic publishing model, I’ve found this tutorial online, which explains it in less than three minutes (worth it, I think).

Scientist meets Publisher
by: aoholcombe

For those who don’t have the time, I’ve included the publishing business model, from the publisher’s perspective, as it’s been described to me.

  1. Academic researchers to the research and writer the papers for free (they’re paid a salary, that does not come from the publishers), which are submitted to privately owned academic journals.
  2. Other academic researchers review those articles for free, selecting the best, and suggesting improvements if needed.
  3. ?
  4. ***PROFIT***

A note on ***PROFIT*** – I’ve emphasized that, because it appears that profits are huge. According to The Guardian, “The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier’s operating profit margin was 36%” and stable, because “in 2010 Elsevier’s operating profit margins were the same (36%) as they were in 1998.” A google search (admittedly unscientific) seems to indicate that other publishers experience similar margins. The ? step is where things get interesting. I’ve heard anecdotes that many schools require faculty to publish in specific journals to achieve tenure. Those journals are privately owned, and require writers to turn over copyright to their articles in order to be published (though some schools are coming up with strategies to fight this). Those journals then control access, and either charge libraries enormous sums of money to access the complete journals, or sell access to individual articles for big money (I’ve seen many that are $25-50), which is a lot for laypeople (you can get an annual subscription to many non-academic business magazines for that price), or those at institutions with less money (presumably the most common customer type, considering their libraries are less likely to pay for access). However, if you are doing research in the field, you need access, because you need to be aware of existing research, to build on those, and ensure your own contributions are original. I’ve even heard of a researcher being denied access to her own paper, because she published in a journal that her school couldn’t afford.  There is a lot more to know about all of this, including the economics of it, but I’m keeping things brief because there are many others more knowledgeable on this, and this portion is not an original contribution of mine.

My Perspective

First of all, as a layperson, this is all a pain in the ass. I do try to read academic articles, for several reasons. First, scholarly articles can be a goldmine for managers, as explained by Professor Sutton of Stanford University (pdf). More recently, I’ve been reading scholarly articles because I aspire to join the academic community, and I want to know what I’m getting in to, and to figure out what types of research most interest me. I’ve found many amazing articles, without paying a dime for individual articles – but it hasn’t been easy. I have free access to many journals through work, where we have a corporate subscription to EBSCOhost. I already subscribe to MIT Sloan Management Review, Harvard Business Review, Rotman magazine, and more, and I pay extra to have access to the complete archives (unfortunately not an option for Rotman). I often find myself searching Google Scholar, SSRN, and personal web pages of the authors (works especially well if one of the authors works for a school outside the US), and occasionally I only find a working paper version (which works for my purposes now), but the search is always worth it.

Second, it makes it harder to think about doing my own work. It’s interesting to read about the photolithographic alignment equipment industry, and a bit of a pain to search everywhere for the article (I found a scanned copy hosted by MIT - pdf), but it’s impossible for me to try to replicate the results if the data isn’t shared. I’ve been working on refining my quantitative skills, but it would be awesome if I could practice on real data, and replicate real findings from the field I hope to enter. One of the articles above mentions that data should be shared, if just so that other researchers can confirm the findings (it would also help reveal those who fake their findings). My perspective, as a fledgling researcher, is that going through the motions of quality research might make it easier to become a quality researcher. I admit I could be wrong here, and any skills I might develop on my own now will pale compared to what I’ll develop in a PhD program under guidance from experts, but I’d still like the chance to play around with real data.

Third, I wonder what my role in this system will eventually be. I expect to attend a program strong enough to have access to all the major journals, and expect to continue research after graduation in a similar situation. I also feel like I’ll be more comfortable asking others for access to a paper once I’m part of the community. Right now I feel like I’m wasting the authors time if I e-mail them and say, “I might not really understand your ideas, but I was wondering if you would be willing to send them to me for free so I can understand them better, rather than paying $50 for them, of which you would get $0 anyway.” However, I also want my ideas to have impact, and I’d like laypeople to be able to read them if they think the idea could help them, and I’d like researchers at any other school to be able to read them. I know from experience that some papers will be incomprehensible to most laypeople, either because of the jargon or the math, so maybe writing an occasional book covering some of my research is more important if I want those ideas to spread to the general public. I know some journals allow researchers to pay to have their paper be open – I don’t know if schools fund that, or if that would come out of my own pocket. I would like to think that I’d be willing to pay to support the community, even if it came out of my own pocket, but my perspective might be different when I have kids, and it’s braces or making one paper available. If my school cares about where I publish, because they need the recognition, I will want to support my local community. If publishing in an open access journal helps the larger community, and I have to choose between my career and my local community, and the larger community, I might choose career/local. I don’t even know if I’ll have to figure this out on my own, or if my mentors will provide advice in areas like this too. I guess we’ll wait and see.

Update January 11, 2012:
Just found this very interesting blog post on the topic, tweeted by @academicdave, retweeted by @joshgans (how I found it):Academic Publishers: Suicide Bombers Against the Academy

Update January 12, 2012:
Found another interesting blog post,  tweeted by @academicdave (who I now follow), titled Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication which includes this great quote:
“We teach, as we were taught; we publish, as we learned from the publications of others. We cannot pay back those who came before us, but can only give to those who come after. Our participation in an ethical, voluntary scholarly community is grounded in the obligation we owe one another, an obligation that derives from what we have received.”

Second update January 12, 2012:
Professor Joshua Gans, of The University of Toronto, has written a post on the topic, titled Exit and voice in access to scholarly articles. This post really adds to the discussion because he explains why it doesn’t solve the problem if academic quit submitting to expensive journals – mainly that scholars still need access to historical research, and even if no new journals were created, publishers could continue to charge monopoly prices for older work, that scholars still need access to. The importance of referring back to older papers is why I save PDFs of interesting articles in Evernote, but this point is a really importance piece of the puzzle. My own solution to this would be to have the documents hosted by a country that doesn’t recognize the validity of the copyrights, though US policy is to bully every country to respect US intellectual property, even if it harms those in poor countries (which itself is a subject of debate). Anyway, I always love posts from Professor Gans, and he is one of the reasons I applied for the Rotman PhD program (I’m assuming he won’t see this, since I posted this days ago, though I also mentioned it in my application).


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