Go West, Young Man - Does Open Access Really Matter in the Long Run?

Making a name for yourself in science is no easy job. Aside from the technical challenge of doing noteworthy science while working under constraints, there's the compounding challenge of making your work known to influential colleagues. Excellent work done in a vacuum is lost to science, only to be "rediscovered" by those more willing or capable of self-promotion. Look around at the most successful scientists in your field, and you'll find that they are both extraordinarily adept at doing noteworthy science and in promoting their work.

Scientists have been using the scientific publication system for hundreds of years as a channel for promoting their work. For a variety of reasons, this system is now breaking down before our eyes. There are many reasons - consider these:

  • The printed page doesn't matter anymore. Old-guard scientific publishers have been able to prosper by acting as gatekeepers of a precious resource: the printed page. The arrival of immediate, ultra-cheap, ubiquitous, interactive, and persistent communication through the Internet means that printed journals are increasingly viewed as wasteful and irrelevant.
  • Printed journals have priced themselves out of the marketplace. How many printed journals has your library dropped over the last year? Does your "library" even carry current printed journals anymore?
  • Electronic Information wants to be free. Few things are more frustrating than knowing the answer to your question exists on a server somewhere, but you are forbidden from accessing it. Yes, you can pay $15-$30 for each article you need or get multiple subscriptions costing thousands per year, but is that any way to spend your budget?
  • The minimum publishable unit is shrinking. Scientists have legitimate interests in maximizing the number of papers they publish, in minimizing their size, and in decreasing their interval. Submissions to top-tier journals continue to increase. New journals are started to catch the overflow, placing additional strain on the system's ability to find readers and "qualified" reviewers, and driving up production costs in the process.
  • Too much information. How many scientific papers have you actually read, from start to finish, in the last month? How many important, relevant papers in your field could you have completely read in the last month? How many of them did you find through an automatic notification system? How many papers have you used solely for one specific piece of information they contain? How many of these papers did you find through a database of some kind?

Open Access has become a hot topic, mainly in response to the points above. Although well-intended, the debate assumes that scientific publication in the Internet age will continue to work essentially the same way it always has - with scientists submitting manuscripts to publishers who act as editors, distributors, and in many cases quality-assurance agencies.

But what if it doesn't end up working out that way?

The reason that the existing scientific publication system has flourished for hundreds of years is that it solved the fundamental problems of two key groups: (1) scientists who wanted to be informed of new developments; and (2) scientists who wanted to promote their work and careers.

If you accept this premise, then nothing prevents entirely new publication models from replacing the existing ones - provided that they solve the basic problem scientists face. If anything, the Internet is replete with examples of powerful old-guard gatekeepers of all stripes being first undermined as they denied that their business models were failing, then lashing out at everything but the root cause of their problems, and finally being driven into oblivion.

Why should old-guard scientific publishers be immune to this process?

Some scientists are discovering value in bypassing scientific publishers altogether. In chemistry, the best-known example is Jean-Claude Bradley and his group at Drexel. As Bradley's group is joined by others willing to experiment in this area, they will uncover a variety of problems that need to be addressed. Some of the most significant (at this point) include:

  • tools to create content
  • services that host and archive that content indefinitely
  • peer-review mechanisms that fully leverage the power of collaboration over the Internet
  • utilities for finding and promoting the work

These are the new high-payoff areas in scientific publication. Like all high-payoff areas, this one starts out looking dangerous or insignificant to most people.

This is not to say that that the Internet eliminates the need for gatekeepers. Instead, it creates tremendous opportunities for new gatekeepers. Google, eBay, and Wikipedia are gatekeepers. Facebook and YouTube are also gatekeepers. By all accounts, these services have done phenomenally well and will continue to flourish for some time. Significantly, each service addresses the basic need of information consumers to be informed and information producers to have their message heard. These systems have found powerful mechanisms for quality control that in many cases put the current practice of scientific peer-review to shame. And in no case will you find a business model requiring pay-per-view.

Google, eBay, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, and hundreds of other gatekeepers thrive because each has found a new precious resource to allocate, not by trying to extract every last drop of value from the old ones. Both scientific publishers and Open Access proponents would be wise to consider their example.