Open Access Publishing

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[Transcript of a talk podcast I made; hence the writing is informal/verbal rather formal/succinct.]

Open Science and open research have been topics of interest in the past few years. I got introduced to this important topic in late 2006 through a video lecture by Prof. Hal Abelson, the originator of Creative Commons. Ever since I have been thinking of ways to practice open science in my academic surrounding. In this talk I present my opinions on open access journals, their necessity and possibilities and how they can be nourished in an Indian context. Some of the material is known to most of us but I talk on it for the benefit of those who are new to research publishing. There are others who have asked me questions on specific open access topics in my lectures. Some of their doubts are answered here. 

I am a faculty in an academic institute that requires as part of my duty to do original research. I must publish my original research in reputed journals pertaining to my scientific niche to improve my scientific standing and academic position and recognition among peers. More the quantity with accompanied quality more such recognition. I must publish research as a way of academic life.

I do research mostly in heat transfer, a relatively small (remote) corner within thermal science, within physical science, which itself is but a relatively small portion of the authentic scientific knowledge being generated. I need to publish my research in journals related to heat transfer. A quick web count looking for journal titles with the words heat or thermal gives a number between 15 and 20 depending on whether you include some physics journals that also publish such heat transfer stuff.

A journal that carries peer reviewed original research articles usually has an editorial board comprising of accomplished professors and researchers in the pertinent field of that journal. These editors receive the submitted copy of my research paper, categorize it within heat transfer, choose reviewers who are professors and researchers working in the relevant sub category of heat transfer and send my paper to them and ask for their opinion on its scientific merit, originality and usefulness. These professors review my paper as a voluntary service for the science community they belong to and send in their reviews about my work back to me through the editors of the journal. Assuming the work is reasonably error free and useful, upon revising the article by attending to the reviewers questions on a variety of things from the appropriateness of a model or equation to cited or not cited references to English, I need to send back a revised version of the paper for the approval of the editor. Some times this process of peer review goes through two or three iterations with apparently useful discussions on the content of the article. If the editor accepts the paper at this stage, it will be published in the journal in a future edition.

The peer review process and the associated personnel including the journal editorial board, the reviewers and the authors all belong to academia and associated research organizations. Until this stage, there is no copyright involved or transferred. everything works on mutual trust and single or double blind peer review. Here ends the role of all of the academics involved including me the author of the paper. As a sidelight I could add that most of the journal research literature is read by other such researchers and academics. If made available, the interested public are willing to take a look.

But the actual publishing of the entire body of research knowledge is done by publishers, the middlemen, are those who control entirely the key aspects like who could have access to such knowledge, how much profit the publishers could make, what sort of copyright the researcher who generates original knowledge could have and so on.

The journals escalate in reputation over the years, only because of the quality and sincere effort of the peer review and editorial board, all researchers and academics. Ironically, the accompanied escalating publishing cost and profit are determined by the journal publishers. The involved academics neither get nor expect a cut in the profits that is made out of their sweat. They are happy to see their work published in journals read by their peers.

The eventual actual publishing of the paper depends on me signing a transfer of copyright form to the publisher of that journal. Until I actually sign this, I hold all the copyright of what I wrote. Once I sign it, I transfer some of my rights to the journal publisher. And if I don’t sign it, I cannot publish my, otherwise technically correct, article in that journal.
In short, the publishing activity is controlled by middleman and remains closed.

There is another way. The open access way. The journals listed at http://www.doaj.org/, the directory of open access journals, follow this way. And the list is growing every year.

As a researcher, I do all the hard work, think of an idea, find the research methods and tools, find the funding if necessary to accomplish certain tasks to realize the idea and see its merit, write the results using the idea and analyze the pros and cons of the idea and send that research article usually to a research journal office comprising of other researchers. The subsequent peer review process that qualifies my idea for its worthiness as original useful scientific knowledge is done by these academics and researchers mostly for no fee. It is a service they all must perform because it will be reciprocated in kind and quality by other researchers in the community to uplift their research work. Strict but free of money.

In this reasonably democratic process of scientific knowledge generation, where is money and cost and profit involved? Only in the actual publishing of the journal? Then why can’t that be supported by one of the many democratic ways possible?

For instance, shift the entire journal online. It costs pittance to maintain a server space and host web domains and could be incurred life long in one philanthropic nod. Open source software can take care of the entire peer reviewing and publishing process with the editors needing to know how to operate one or two such software. Monetizing with appropriate Google ads on such web journal portals are a way to become self reliant.

Another way to do this is to have local consortium of research schools to maintain web spaces for journals in which their employees are participating as editors or reviewers or even authors. There could be an agreement between the journal editorial board and their respective academic institutions on the extent of financial support in magnitude and time. Guidelines could be charted for suitable cap for preventing any monopoly of institutes and representatives while maintaining the democracy of the publishing activity.

While the above methods open ways of starting a fresh open access journal downsides exist. The major downside is the so called reputation or the lack of such reputation of a fresh open access journal. Established scientists think twice to publish in journals which are not reputed, for, more such publications only detriment their scientific standing. Their merit will be questioned. Their ability, or its lacking, to publish in established, reputed journals, peer reviewed usually by authorities of the field, will be discussed in every appraisal. Whether the reputed journal is closed access or open access is an unimportant side issue in such appraisals. In such an academic scenario, as a fledgling researcher, I know that publishing exclusively as a matter of principle, in start-up journals because they are open access, is a sure fire quick fire way to commit academic suicide.

There need to be a way out to break this self imposed cycle of no win situation.

One way I could think of is, to start every open access journal with an editorial board and peer review group that already participated actively in the existing editorial boards of other reputed but closed access journals controlled by middleman publishers. This ensures the fledgling open access journal to quickly gain reputation amongst scientists of that field, once they are informed of the illustrious stars that deck the editorial board of that journal. If this process could thaw a few top scientists in that field to send their work to the open access journal, its future and reputation is ensured in the ensuing avalanche.

Another way I could think of is, instead of setting up a new open access journal, an existing closed access journal could be made into an open access one. This could happen with or without the agreement of the publisher. If the publisher agrees to work with one of the models of open access, then that is a start. We should immediately try that angle. For instance, the publisher could be negotiated to release into open access or the internet, the content of an issue, after two or three ensuing issues have appeared. This model could work for academic research publications with reasonable success.

Else, the journal subscriptions could be bought by academic consortium annually and made available open access.

For instance, in India, the institute of technologies can form a consortium and support open access journals. Annual subscriptions can be paid to maintain the open access status of journals served and participated by their employees.

If the publisher doesn’t agree for any sort of open access, the entire editorial board of a reputed journal could decide to boycott and resign their positions and perhaps start a new journal under a suitable name. The editorial board will provide the required credibility for such a venture to be supported by the scientists in that field to contribute to the journal and its reputation.

On the other hand, the publishers could simply appoint a new board team and continue. This risk has to be faced, for, every such mass resignation cannot be dealt with with such a publisher position. I think the academic community is sufficiently reactionary to maintain the required democracy.

There are other angles in which open access can be seen as the only correct way to do report research at least in the future.

I am a faculty selected and appointed by a selection committee that includes experts nominated in principle by the President of India. I work in an educational institute of India funded by the Indian government. In short, I am a government employee earning my salary from tax payers money.

My work includes doing original research of international repute in my chosen areas of interest and publishing it. Leave out the fact that I do this to generate and sustain my academic recognition among peers in the Indian and International scientific community. What about my indirect responsibility to those tax payers? If one such informed tax payer wants access to my research, want to know how his money is spent by the government on me, should I not oblige? Why should I do my research using tax payers money given to me through an academic or government sponsored research grant but publish it in journals controlled by middleman who control the access of such information for their own ends? I think the public of a country has a right to have access to the research content that their tax money funded.

Academia is a free place to foster new ideas and exchange it freely with anyone so that eventually such ideas help the society. For teaching existing knowledge in the form of courses, this free exchange is already proving to be successful. The MIT Free Online courses and locally the IIT Madras Free Online courses are examples of such a model of free exchange of knowledge with the interested public. In the same vein, true to its character academia allows me to generate new ideas as a researcher and shape it eventually into new and useful knowledge. It germinates and generates new knowledge. Why then it allows middleman in the form of third party publishers to control where such knowledge resides?

The rightful place for such knowledge to reside is where it is germinated and generated. Academia itself.

And open access journals are a right choice.