Friday, January 06, 2012

Public access to research reports not peer-reviewed research: two major flaws in the argument

Updated January 6 - now four major flaws

David Wojick at the Scholarly Kitchen argues for public access to research reports, not peer-reviewed articles. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with open access policy, note that this comes in the context of the recent revelation that the American Association of Publishers is lauding the Research Works Act which would forbid any U.S. federal funding agency from requiring public access to the results of research that it funds. For a synopsis of what is wrong with the bill and actions to fight it, see the Alliance for Taxpayer Access site. 

Four major flaws with the public access to research reports, not peer-reviewed articles argument

The world does not consist only of scholars / researchers and some great unwashed "public"

Public access expands access to everyone, everywhere. For example, with medical research, public access means access for doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals, as well as social workers, teachers at all levels, journalists, entrepreneurs and other businesspeople, as well as volunteers and community-based researchers. A large percentage of "the public" in modern society has some level of post-secondary education. And there are many people without much formal education who have found reasons to teach themselves. If there is a problem people are trying to solve, or people are looking for new business ideas, they may well be motivated to learn enough to understand the scholarly literature. For more on this, see this article Andrew Waller & I wrote on this in the Letter of the LAA:

Intellectual freedom

Setting aside the question of whether the public can easily read the scholarly literature, a more essential matter is the fact that it is the individual's right to choose. If a patient wants consumer literature, they can go to their public library. If they want to read the actual research articles, this is their right.

Requiring more writing of researchers

Part of this argument involves more writing time for these research reports on the part of researchers. This is interesting - now scholarly publishers are now satisfied with authors giving them their work, but rather they wish to assign extra work to the researchers. If scholarly societies are advancing this argument, I would assume that they have not checked in with their members on this, as members will often be the ones required to do the extra work. Similarly, at university presses - since when does a university press have a right to assign duties to faculty? And as for commercial publishers - wow, they would have a lot of nerve to ask this!

If the services of scholarly journals publishers are not all that important, why not do away with them altogether?

The scholarly publishers who are floating this idea really ought to give this a bit more thought. If it is just fine to provide the public with results of research in a form that is not peer-reviewed, why not everyone else? That is to say, if peer review is not that important, according to the people who coordinate peer review for a living - then perhaps we can do without? That would save an awful lot of money. The Houghton studies in the U.K. found that the most cost savings with a transition to open access would come with a transformative system building peer review on top of articles in repositories and doing away with journals altogether. Costs reported are (the subscription model is with green open access):
  • £230 million to publish using the subscription model,
  • £150 million to publish under the open access model and
  • £110 million to publish with the self-archiving with peer review services plus some £20 million in operating costs if using the different models.
In other words, a peer review overlay system built on repositories would cost less than half the costs of the current subscriptions model. And this system does include peer review! So if the peer review that scholarly journal publishers isn't important enough to be required as part of an open access policy, then perhaps the best approach is to scrap - not the policy, but the journal system altogether. This would give significant economic relief to universities around the world struggling with the current difficult economic climate.

This post is public domain for open access advocacy purposes.