Timo Hannay just responded, over at one of Nature's blogs, to the hordes of bloggers who were somewhat displeased with the tone and content of Declan Butler's recent Nature article. Now that someone from Nature has returned fire, and other bloggers have fired back, it's likely that this whole thing is going to turn into one of those multi-day, multi-article kerfuffles that do so much to maintain blogging's reputation as the WWE of the scientific world. Which is cool, as far as I'm concerned. It's been a while since I've grabbed a folding chair and climbed into the Cage of Death. I'm ready to go.
But not quite yet.
Before we start throwing each other onto collapsable tables, or driving bulldozers through the ring, it might be good to stop and look at the idea that's at the core of this conflict: open access. Just what is open access? More importantly, why is it something that so many scientists get worked up over?
In an open access journal, there's no charge for reading articles. This stands in sharp contrast to most scientific journals, where either the reader or the library he or she is sitting in have to pay a subscription charge to access the journal.
Yes, that's pretty much all there is to the definition. So why on earth do so many people get so worked up over open access? Sure, it's nice to get something for nothing, but it's not exactly an everyday occurrence. I doubt that most people would get that worked up over not having free access to the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal. So what is it about scientific journals that makes them so different?
There are quite a few reasons to favor open access, and most of them are good. Most scientific research is communicated through journal articles. The bulk of scientists will go through their careers without authoring a single book, but it's not at all unusual for a scientist who has been around for a while to be an author on well more than 100 journal articles. If you want to be a good scientist, you need to remain aware of the work that's going on in your field. If you want to remain aware of the work that's going on in your field, you need to read lots of journal articles. If it costs lots of money to get access to lots of journals, the only way you are going to be a good scientist is if you have access to lots of money - and that's before you go into a lab or conduct a single experiment.
The problem is that not everyone with the potential to become a good scientist has the money needed to easily access all the journals they need. The traditional access system is a substantial burden for researchers in developing countries, or those in poorer communities. Opening access levels the playing field quite a bit.
There's also the issue of public access. A great deal (if not most) scientific research is funded through government grants, which use taxpayer dollars. The results of that research are then published in scientific journals, which most citizens can only access with great difficulty and inconvenience. Open access makes it easier for the informed taxpayer to see what they've paid for.
Still, cynic that I am, I suspect that for most scientists their own need and ability to access the scientific literature is probably more of a motivating factor than someone else's access, no matter how needed or deserved. I've got a feeling that one of the factors that has most benefited the open access movement has been the incredible greed and stupidity of several of the major academic publishers.
Scientists must publish their research in the peer reviewed literature. A scientist who does not publish will very rapidly become painfully acquainted with the prefix "un-" - as in untenured, unemployed, and unemployable. Journal publishers, smart cookies that they are, know this very, very well. Scientists do not get paid to have their articles published. In many cases, they fight tooth-and-nail for the privilege of giving their work away to the journal they want to appear in. In some cases, they even pay to get their paper published. Since every scientist needs to publish in the peer reviewed literature, there's also a lot of pressure for scientists to further contribute to their field by (voluntarily) serving as a reviewer, or for providing their time (gratis) as an editor.
The folks who publish journals have a really enviable business environment. There are a group of people out there who not only have to contribute to their products - for free - if they want to succeed, they also need to purchase those very same products. They've got scientists where it hurts coming and going. Their problem is that they've seriously misjudged what the market can (or at least will) bear.
Subscription costs have been going up in recent years at a much faster rate than the serials budgets of most university libraries. More and more scientists have been treated to letters from the library which say something along the lines of, "We're sorry, but due to rising costs we will need to cancel 1/4 (or 1/3, or 1/2) of the journal subscriptions next year. Please help us pick which ones to keep." It's extremely annoying to learn that if you want to continue to read articles in the journal that you just donated 20 hours to as a reviewer, you're going to need to pay out of pocket for a personal subscription.
At the same time that libraries and scientists have been feeling the pinch from rising subscription costs, the traditional publishers have been doing very well indeed. One of the leading publishers of traditional, pay-to-read journals, Reed Elsevier, reported profits of 477 million British Pounds from their Science & Technology and Health Sciences division in 2007. (That's well over $900,000,000 at current exchange rates.) Their profit margin was up over 31%. Given that, is it any wonder that some scientists have decided that they're better off, in the long run, paying a fee to have their paper published, but not getting charged to read it later?
The open access debate is as acrimonious as it is because there's so much at stake. For the general public and some scientists, the ability to have any sort of meaningful access to the literature is at stake. For many more scientists, it's the ability to have as much access as they need, combined with the resentment that comes from being repeatedly hosed coming and going. For the major publishing houses, it's hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.
Before closing, I should note that while Nature has been at the heart of this latest open access conflict, they are not one of the worst offenders when it comes to the "squeeze them until they bleed" business model embraced by Reed Elsevier and other large publishing houses. They're also one of the best examples of why there's a place for both open access and traditional publishers - unlike most journals, Nature provides a great deal of content beyond the peer-review articles. They serve as much as a news service for scientists as they do a conduit for reporting original results. In fact, I usually enjoy Nature more for their perspective pieces and news articles than for the papers. The recent Butler article was (I hope) simply an exception to that.