Friday, December 16, 2011

In defense of "Open Submission" in scientific publishing

The much-trumpeted "Open Access" movement in scientific publishing promises to revolutionize scientific accessibility, so that anyone can freely obtain the latest scientific research publications.  In this brave new world, the evil profit-driven publishers no longer prey upon the scientific community and taxpayers are no longer unjustly kept from reading about the work their taxes pay for.

Unfortunately, the reality of open access has become virtually synonymous with the "author-pay" publishing model.   In the name of making scientific publishing more open, author-pay publishing raises a whole new barrier.  Instead of requiring the reader to pay for access, the author (i.e., the scientist) now must pay to have his article published.  So we are gaining freedom of access in exchange for giving up freedom of submission.  Does that make any sense?

Consider the following quote from one of the great promoters of Open Access, Michael Nielsen:

Einstein’s proposals were astounding, yet his arguments were so compelling that his work was published in one of the leading physics journals of his day, and was rapidly accepted by most leading physicists. How remarkable that an outsider, a virtual unknown, could come in to challenge many of our most fundamental beliefs about how the universe works. And, in no time at all, the community of physicists essentially said, “Yeah, you’re right.”

(Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science)

The reason Einstein's ideas gained rapid acceptance is that anyone -- even a patent clerk with no grant money! -- could submit their work to a leading journal and have it refereed by the experts.  What would have happened if the Open Access movement had transformed scientific publishing before he came along?

Perhaps our children will one day launch an "Open Submission" campaign, crying that grad students and scientists from third world countries must no longer be barred from publishing just because they can't pay.  Let's make sure they don't have to.  Open submission, always taken for granted until now, must be one of the fundamental tenets of scientific publishing. Say no to author-pay journals.  Don't submit work to them, don't referee for them, and don't serve as editors for them.

There is a better road to open access.  Put all your papers on the arXiv.  Publish only in journals that allow you to post a final version on your website (or institutional server).



The many potential evils of the author-pay model are explained in more detail in two articles published in the Notices of the AMS: