Open access for whom?

Einstein had zijn relativiteitstheorie nooit gepubliceerd als Sander Dekker zijn staatssecretaris was geweest, schrijft emeritus hoogleraar Wolfgang Stroebe. De druk van het ministerie om te publiceren in open access-tijdschriften gaat tot ongelukken leiden. (English)

In a letter (pdf in Dutch) to the Dutch parliament (Tweede Kamer) the Staatssecretaris voor Onderwijs, Sander Dekker, expressed his intention to take measures that would force all Dutch researchers to publish their research findings in Open Access journals by the year 2024. This sounds like a great idea.

As the name says, articles published in Open Access journals are open to everybody and not only to the scientists who have access to university libraries. And thus, Sander Dekker argues, people in the health area and members of patient associations can read our research to learn about new treatment methods. Moreover, leaders of small and mid-sized firms can use our research to develop techniques to innovate their production lines.

Since Dekker worked at a university himself for a short period, he should know that leaders of middle and small-sized firms or members of patient associations will be hard put to understand what we publish in scientific journals, even if they ever wanted to read it.

Open acces journals also want to make money
Another popular argument in favor of Open Access journals is that the government should not have to pay (through university libraries) for the overpriced subscriptions to scientific journals that publish research which has been funded with public money. Since publishers typically pay neither the editors of their journals nor the reviewers (usually all university employees), they could be considered by some to be parasites feeding on the efforts of public servants. And nobody likes parasites.

The problem is that Open Access journals also want to make money. They just have a different business model. Instead of making their money by charging for subscriptions, they make it by charging for the publication of articles. (Their prices typically vary from $ 1,000 to $ 3,000 per article.) This means for the individual researcher that she/he has to fork out a substantial amount of money to get an article into an Open Access journal, whereas he/she could have published it for free in a “normal” journal that probably would do a much better job on reviewing and editing the piece.

I'd like to decide myself where to publish
I hasten to add that there are excellent Open Access journals. I have published twice in Plos One and my experience has been extremely positive. Thus, I have nothing against Open Access publishing, but I would like to decide myself where I publish my work. 

Moreover, whereas the quality of the traditional journals in their disciplines is known by researchers, most Open Access journals have no reputation. Nearly every day, I am receiving invitations to submit articles to some newly founded Open Access journal with some crazy name published by some unknown publishing house.

Finally, I think that most research is also accessible through the “Green Road”. If I needed an article that was not available through our library, I usually found it on Google Scholar. If not, an e-mail to the author would typically get me a copy by the next day. 

Departments will have to pay
For people working at universities, the cost of publishing in an Open Access journal will be paid out of their grants or by their departments. Since not everybody has grant money, departments will increasingly have to pay for publications out of budgets that are too small to start out with.

This might result in further reduction in the funds they are able to spend, for example, on their teaching. Furthermore, in the more authoritarian departments that still exist in some areas of science, the boss who holds the purse strings will (again) become the gatekeeper who decides what gets submitted for publication.

For people who do not work for institutions that are willing to pay for their publications, this new rule means that they have to pay the fees out of their own private income. Thus, if Sander Dekker had been in power in the Switzerland of the year 1900, Einstein would probably have decided not to publish his articles on relativity theory. He was not terribly wealthy at that time and I doubt that the “Berner Patent Amt” would have been willing to fork out the money for this publication. But then, the leaders of middle and small-sized firms would not have understood it anyway. And the theory also has few implications that would be relevant for members of patient associations.

Dutch researchers will have to publish in low impact journals
The most intriguing consequence of Sander Dekker’s Open Access policy is that if he succeeds, the government will not only have to pay Open Access journals for the publication of publicly subsidized research, but they will also have to pay for the subscriptions to all the regular journals.

The Dutch university system could only afford to stop these subscriptions, if researchers in all other countries were following the move to Open Access propagated by Sander Dekker. To find out whether this was the case, I asked four colleagues (internationally renowned researchers working at top universities in the US, the UK, Switzerland and Germany) whether they felt any pressure by their universities or their departments to publish in Open Access journals.

From my US colleague, I received the following answer; “No, to the contrary, departments discourage faculty to publish there because of lack of impact, lack of credible peer review, etc.” My British colleague, who works at a top British university wrote: “We are  obsessed with publishing in high impact journals. It drives our RAE EVALUATION process (Research Assessment Exercise). No one has ever even mentioned to me that I should publish in Open Access.” My Swiss colleague wrote; “No there are no pressures in this direction. Furthermore, I once published in an Open Access Journal and the review and copyediting process was so poor that I will never do it again”. The answer from my German colleague was; “I do not understand your question, please clarify”.

From these responses, I conclude that if Sander Dekker succeeds with his plans, researchers in the Netherlands will be the only ones who will have to publish their work in low impact journals. In addition, Dutch universities will not only have to pay for the overprized subscriptions to traditional journals (in which all our international colleagues publish) but also for the overpriced costs that Open Access journals charge for our communications to the leaders of the small and mid-sized industry in the Netherlands (and naturally the members of patient associations). 

A sweat-drenched dream
This brings me to a recurrent nightmare that has plagued me in my sleep during the last years. I dream that there is a government committee at some ministry that has the task to bring research in the Netherlands to a total standstill. During the last instalment of this dream, the members of this committee were frustrated that past measures seemed to have been unsuccessful. They discussed cutting university budgets still further but decided that this had not been very effective in recent years. And instructing NWO to fund only research to younger scientists (under the guise of innovation), but stop funding them once they have become established researchers had also been only partially successful.

In this last dream they decided on a last desperate measure that was bound to work: Prevent researchers from publishing in any journal their colleagues were likely to read and in addition prevent them from reading any of the research their colleagues publish by cancelling subscriptions to all major journals. I woke up while this discussion was still going on, sweat-drenched and glad it was only a dream.