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    Monday, March 31, 2008

    Why open access publishing is troublesome

    In various email lists etc. there have been a lot of discussion about the future of paper journals and the superiority of open access on-line journals. Although I agree that information should be widely accessible and that many (especially independent) researchers are left out of the loop due to the cost of subscribing to journals, the solution is not to just move access-restricted journals into the public domain, nor to abolish paper journals. Sometimes there's made a connection between the seemingly inevitable demise of other physical media (e.g. cd's and similar will be entirely replaced by digital downloads) but this is a very misleading analogy. The most important thing about scholarly research and academic journals is that they have to be subject to a quality control, usually in the form of a peer review. Although there's nothing difficult about doing this with open access journals, the main problem is that it is difficult for the reader to know the extent and quality of peer review. The reason is that with open access journals, there is often no discernable body that puts its reputation at stake. If a journal is rumoured to not take the peer review process seriously, then no respectable publisher would let that continue. Blackwell, Springer etc. have a reputation at stake. With online journals, there is often no such stakes involved. I'm not saying that this is foolproof (there are probably many instances of shoddy journals hiding behind a respectable publisher), but at the very least it is a more reliable indicator than anything found on the Web. Thus, the alternative to the current system cannot bypass the important role of the publishers. The alternative, in other words, is not to start up a host of independent, ad hoc journals, but rather to sway the publishers to find alternative and more accessible means of publishing their journals. The reason why the analogy with record companies does not hold, is that there is no such requirement for peer review and quality control in music. Research is not a matter of the taste of the consumers, but the quality of the research; and currently the best way we have of controlling the latter seems to be peer-review and to have it done through a publisher with a reputation at stake. In more constructive terms, I think the sustainable road to more open access journals is to sway the publishers, not to simply set up alternatives whose scientific quality is difficult to assess.