At HASTAC: #OpenAccess Is Not Just for Christmas

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Originally posted on HASTAC.

This morning on Twitter I came across the headline “Nobel winner declares boycott of top science journals“. The tweet containing the headline and link was tagged with #OpenAccess.

Biased as I am, I immediately assumed the reason to boycott would be the toll-access model in which academics are alienated from their own work through the imposition of copyright transfers and often long embargoes; a model that imposes considerable friction/barriers of access to the general public and other academics from institutions that might not subscribe to those toll-access journals. I thought this before actually having clicked on the link. I was on the train. When I got to my desk I read the piece.

The link above is a para-meta-news item (not sure what the correct journalistic term is) about the opinion piece written by Professor Randy Sheckman, 2013 Nobel prize winner in physiology or medicine: “How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science“.

Having read the picece, it seemed to me the focus of the article was not mainly open access, or the negative aspects of toll-access as a model. The piece makes a critique of “luxury journals” and of the system of “incentives” that drives academics (scientists in this case) to publish in those journals. The article is a very important critique of the negative aspects of reputation as an incentive to publish. Coming from a Nobel prize winner, this is hopefully likely to be widely distributed and hopefully heard. Professor Scheckman denounces how the current academic system often uses place of publication (i.e. what journal, or more specifically, what journal brand) as a proxy for quality of science: “appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships.”

Professor Scheckman is also editor-in-chief of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society. (You will see eLife in his list of publications, as well as PlosOne, and yes, also Science, Nature and Cell).  He argues that as an alternative to the reign of luxury journals:

There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps.

I want to emphasise it is very good news that a winner of the highest accolade a scientist can get is making this statement. His opinion will be respected and will hopefully be influential. This is good. It makes us all who have been talking about how misguided it is to equate brand reputation (or even worse, access model) with research quality very happy.


It is interesting that the critique focuses mainly on the (many times undeserved) reputation associated with scientific luxury journals. The focus however is not the need for wider public access. The fact that toll-access reproduces and entrenches the privilege of the wealthiest countries and institutions is not considered. The fact that luxury journals are also offering open access “options” at very high fees payable by the authors or their funders is not considered either.

I also worry that there might be the perpetuation of a general feeling that open access is just for those who can afford to publish open access. I don’t mean “afford” only in financial terms. A Nobel prize winner tells us that the academic reputation incentive system is wrong, that “appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships”, and yes, we look at his publication list and there they are: Science, Nature and Cell. If you are a PhD student or Early Career Researcher, what is the message you get?

The problem is even more complicated when the same luxury brands are “embracing” open access by merely inverting their business model, where instead of charging unrealistic amounts to institutional libraries (or users when one needs access to individual articles or issues) it is the author who gets charged an unrealistic amount. The message from these publishers is “if you want to make your research widely and publicly available –which in many countries now means if you want your research to “count” for your appraisal/assessment/keep you in employment- you have to pay us what we are losing from not restricting it.” See this post by Professor Melisa Terras. If a Professor in a World-class university finds the processing charges offensive, what is left for the rest of us hoping to develop our careers in smaller institutions, not to mention those in the developing world?

Luxury or legacy journals embracing open access by imposing ridiculously/unrealistically high Article Processing Charges are also contaminating the sentiment amongst academics towards open access as an option. “The new breed of Open Access journals”, as Professor Scheckman calls it, includes smaller, lesser known journals that are publishing top-quality research and engaging in innovative publishing, editing and peer review methods. They are not always funded (not all open access journals enjoy the institutional funding that eLife has) and therefore need to find a way to become financially sustainable. Reasonable, context-specific APCs are an option, but the legacy publishers have done a great job at bringing that otherwise viable and ethical business option into disrepute. There is a famous [black] list of “predatory” open access journals. It is interesting it took us so long to come up with a black list of predatory toll-access journals.

Elsewhere I argued that open access has to be an option for graduate students and early career researchers (academics at all stages of their careers, really). It cannot be only for Christmas, or only for those who have already succeeded in the reputational system. It is clear to me that at the moment only a combination of open access and toll-access publications will keep the research funding administrators content. Nevertheless it should be possible for all of us in academia to embrace open access without feeling this will jeopardise our careers.

More senior academics developed their careers in different contexts. It is inspiring and encouraging that they support open access. But if open access is only supported once careers have been developed embracing -supporting- the system that privileges “luxury journals” over newer, even perhaps grassroots open access initiatives, how will things ever change?

There is a tendency to believe “the system” is unchangeable. It is invisible yet ubiquitous and pervasive. It is everywhere and nowhere, and the individual -graduate students and ECRs- feel they cannot but play the rules of the old regime. It is essential that academics that are still developing their careers do not think that only those who have already succeeded -got the grant, got the professorship, got tenure, got the Nobel- can afford to support and publish open access actively and vocally.