Scientists are not supposed to be ‘nimble’, ‘out of the box’ or ‘flexible’ – the hero descriptions of modern industry. It is in the nature of the scientific method that change should come meticulously and only when alternative hypotheses have been tested and independently verified. No self-respecting scientist would dare to make a case based on ‘gut-feel’ – that favourite brag by the titans of the commerce.
Any shift in scientific cultural practices is therefore slow, sticky, and will encounter resistance. Regardless, the major challenge to the restrictive commercial practices of the research publishing model of the past, namely from Open-Access Publishing, has managed to install itself as a permanent feature in the scientific community in a matter of less than 15 years. It arrived with a lot to offer, as well as some caveats.
The need to change
The traditional model of scientific publishing held steady for many years. Graduate students grew used to encountering interesting abstracts yet being denied access because their library did not hold a subscription. Two factors contributed significantly to a growing impatience, which eventually boiled over into action.
- Digitisation and its ability for fast and costless replication and distribution cracked the bottleneck that traditional publishing models exploited commercially. Typesetting and printing by specialists were no longer required. Neither were logistics networks and partnerships to move information to users.
- Rising journal subscription costs placed increasing pressure on research libraries. The Association of Research Libraries reported that over a 30-year period, the cost of journal subscriptions outpaced inflation by 260%. Prestigious scientific journal subscription costs in some cases approached $40,000 per year. As COVID-19 placed further pressure on university and library budgets, while simultaneously demanding faster distribution of research results, the popularity of pre-print services and open-access could only grow.
The benefits of open-access
The acceleration and democratisation of research information dissemination hold remarkable benefits, notably:
- Broader global participation. Removing prohibitive costs has allowed access to an exponential number of researchers who previously could not afford subscription content;
- Breaking down silos between different disciplines. It has become easier to reach across the aisle to colleagues in tangential disciplines to draw on mutual insights and to do collaborative interdisciplinary research;
- Speed. There is just no comparison between the speed with which information can be generated, sourced or shared under open-access compared to earlier models;
- Avoiding duplication. Permissive reuse rights allow researchers to work from an existing foundation of prior research, rather than starting from scratch in isolation;
- Citation frequency. Due to the growth in audience, it was only going to be a matter of time before open-access would be cited more often than articles accessible only by subscription;
- Publishing innovation. The change in the academic publishing industry dynamics has allowed innovative and forward-looking publishers the opportunity to create new partnerships and success stories that blend the best of the traditional with the emerging.
Caveats with Open-Access
There remain a few chinks in the armour of open-access that need consideration:
- Nothing is for free. When revenue streams from subscriptions start drying up, the burden will likely fall more and more on authors to pay for the use of open-access to disseminate their work;
- Quality & Review. Print remains the authentic source. You can trust that by the time an article appears in a respectable journal in print, it has been massaged and dissected by many equally reputable peers;
- Industry sustainability and competition. It would be no secret that the radical challenges to the traditional economic model of publishing, and the inability of all authors to participate in the pay-to-play model, will eventually squeeze many publishers out of business. This could lead to the loss of enormous talent and experience in academic editing skills, but worse, create the risk of yet another powerful oligopoly of intermediaries of other sorts becoming too dominant.
There is a sense of excitement when living through a revolution, of any sorts. Ask Che Guevara. The air is filled with opportunity and risk.
We are living through such a revolution in academia and scientific research with these changes in publishing. If we had to saddle up, it would be viva blended models, where the best of old and new may triumph.
© Pixabay 2021 / image: KRiemer