Open Access Publishing – power to the people

by Hans on 2005/03/31

There’s an interesting commentary in this week’s BMJ titled “Open access publishing: Too much oxygen” by Jeffrey Aronson. Aronson’s basic argument is to temper support of open access publishing. He also believes that the current model of publishing is working well pointing to the number of different journals sprouting up. Aronson argues:

We need to ask whether immediate free access to readers, with whatever method of payment is used, would benefit science (not the scientists or the grant giving bodies, who are also zealous about this idea) and hence society. To zealots (“the dream is now achievable”) the benefits of this 100% oxygen may be self evident. But we have little evidence about the balance of benefits and harms. I believe that the potential advantages are few and the disadvantages many.

I’m all for being cautious, but how can providing access to information be a bad thing? I suppose my opinion is based on the notion that we need to empower individuals by devolving power from the experts. I do, however, agree with Aronson that those who are advantaged should burden more of the costs. But, I disagree that the general readers should be the ones paying. In the traditional paper-based model of publication, I can see how the readership would need to pay: there is a physical journal that must be produced. Someone needs to pay.

But, in the “information age”, online journals have a totally different cost structure. I point to the great success of the thriving community of journals at Biomedcentral.com or of the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR). [Note: I am not mentioning JMIR because I have published there. I just happen to like the model that is in place.] At JMIR, anyone can access the articles and the content without restriction all the time. You pay for access to additional features like the availability of PDF files. JMIR also provides waivers of the article processing fee if the authors are from developing countries or have other mitigating circumstances. The cool feature is that you can pay to have your article reviewed in a shorter time (I suppose in a sense it’s queue jumping). But, this faster access to review doesn’t mean you’ll get published.

In my opinion, research supported and funded by public monies should be made freely available. The model provided by JMIR seems reasonable. You only pay for convenience like a PDF file. I just recently heard of the Public Libraries of Science (PLOS) and it intrigues me. I’ll have to do more research on it to see what they’re up to.

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