Do open-access electronic journals really help science?

The latest fad in the scientific publishing world is open access e-journals. In my field, for example, the Optical Society of America’s Optics Express has become one of the most popular journals, despite being only a decade old. The journal is basically a peer-reviewed website; people submit self-produced papers in either Word or LaTeX form, and those that are accepted are made directly available in PDF form on the website for free download. In theory, this democratizes access to the scientific literature, and increases the distribution of knowledge, but it comes at a cost.

In order save money, the OSA foregoes the cost of typeset articles produced by a professional editor. The optics literature is now awash with papers produced in Microsoft Word. Much of it has the production value of a junion high book report, except with more equations. Word was never meant for mathematical typesetting (and frankly it’s not worthy of anything published) and the results are abysmal and amateurish. Even though it doesn’t technically affect the content, we should take some pride in the presentation of our work. At best, poorly produced papers are inefficient to read, and at worst, they contribute a subtle psychology that says that sloppy work is acceptable and that what we do is not worth the effort to present well.

[Update: The lack of typesetting in Optics Express helps keep the publication charges around $1000 for most articles. As pointed out PlausibleAccuracy below, not all OA journals are author typeset. For example, the Public Library of Science has beautifully produced articles. However, they charge more than twice what the OSA charges to publish.]

In any case, this brings us to the most problematic issue: The way most open-access journals work is by charging an arm and a leg to the authors for publication. Not only does this limit the people who can publish to those with sufficient funding, it also puts the journal in a position of conflicted interest. As professional societies struggle financially, they are under pressure to accept more papers to bring in cash. With open-access, they make money by accepting papers. With closed journals, they make money by producing good journals.

As I understand it, Optics Express is actually a profit center for the OSA. They cannot possibly be objective about peer review when each rejection costs them thousands of dollars. In the end, editors have a lot of power; I recently reviewed a paper for a ultrashort pulse measurement technique that would not work for the majority of cases one would encounter in practice. I pointed this out, and recommended the article be significantly redone. Next month, I found it in Optics Express, virtually unchanged.

So, we’ve democratized the consumption of information at the expense of the democratization of its production. Do you want the best ideas to be published, or the widest distribution of marginal content? I’d argue that society is best served by making sure the best ideas are published, even if it means having to charge for access to those ideas.

While ensuring that people in developing nations are not denied access to information for want of money sounds noble, should we not also be worried about bad science being published for want of money by the publisher, or good science not being published for want of money by the scientist? In fact, perhaps we shouldn’t even be all that concerned that somebody who can’t afford a $25 journal article is not be able to read about a $250,000 laser system. I know that’s harsh, but there is a certain logic to it: if you can’t afford the journal article, you probably can’t do much with the knowledge.

I do agree with the principle of free access, but only if it’s done with integrity. Ideally, journals should be handled by foundations, with publication and distribution paid for by an endowment to be used only for that purpose. At the very least, there should be no overt financial incentives or disincentives to publication for either party. The primary concern should be the quality of the publications, not the political correctness of its distribution.

11 thoughts on “Do open-access electronic journals really help science?

  1. PlausibleAccuracy

    This post is remarkably misinformed. There are many, many OA journals which have no page charges whatsoever. Some do, indeed, and I tend to believe that OA journals should have slightly higher page charges to the authors to cover production costs.

    Do not, however, implicate that “standard” closed journals don’t charge the authors an arm and a leg. Page charges are levied by just about every closed journal I’ve come across, and are often comparable to those from even “premier” OA journals such as PLoS. OA journals often provide a means for application of fee waivers as well, if the cost is a true hardship.

    While it sounds like the quality of the particular journal you’ve cited here may be somewhat lacking, it’s unfair to plaster this generalization across all OA journals. The production quality is a consequence of the journal management, not whether it is OA. Any journal should be concerned with peer review and quality production, as the loss of readership and submissions due to lax practices in these areas will cost far more than allowing a shoddy paper to be published.

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  2. Jonathan Post author

    Well, in my experience all the major OA journals have page charges, and I’ve never run into a closed journal that has a mandatory page charge. Obviously, as I stated in my final paragraph, I have no problem with an OA journal that is free to authors. Can you cite an peer-reviewed OA journal that doesn’t charge authors that is a top-tier journal, run by a respected group? I’m honestly asking, as I’d like to amend my post if so. In physics, there are none, as far as I know.

    For that matter, maybe things are different for closed journals outside of physics. Do you know of any which charge mandatory fees for publication?

    You are absolutely right about the production quality. I painted all OA journals with too broad a brush there. PLoS has beautifully typeset, professionally produced articles, for example. I have changed my article accordingly.

    My main point, however, was about the integrity of the articles. Saying that “good management” will fix a conflict of interest is a weak argument. That’s like saying we shouldn’t have campaign finance reform, because good politicians will do the right thing. Better to make sure there is no conflict of interest than rely on outliers of human nature.

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  3. Ken

    Yow. I haven’t published anything recently (unfortunately), but I was unaware of the entire concept of journals charging publication fees to authors. That’s nuts. The only fees I’d heard of are for authors who go above some pre-determined limit on number of pages, meant more as a deterrent than a money-maker.

    Perhaps this is indeed field-specific; I did some digging at a couple of the preëminent journals in my field (http://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/ and http://www.mitpressjournals.org/loi/coli). One is OA with no apparent fees, the other is non-OA and also has no author fees that I know of.

    Also, Word docs?? Do they want readers to spew throwup all over the page?

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  4. Clef

    Just a bit of background re: the quality of Optics Express. One of the few objective, quantitative indicators of journal quality is the annual ISI ranking of scholarly journals. From its first appearance, OpEx has remained in the top 10 out of 60 in the ISI field of “optics.” In the last few years, it has ranked first or second (along with the equally distinguished Optics Letters). Actually, the same authors who publish in OSA’s other long-standing “traditional” journals publish in OpEx. Its hard to see how OpEx comprises “marginal content” when the journal is the most-cited publication in optical physics.

    As for OpEx being “somewhat lacking” compared to other OA journals: It’s interesting to contemplate that SPARC (the major librarian-based advocate for OA) recruited OpEx as one of its original “Leading Edge” OA journals. As one of the two oldest OA journals, in any field, in the world, nearly every other major publisher of an OA journal has at one time or another come to OpEx to ask for help in “approaching the quality, high production values, and financial viability of OpEx.” No other OA journal is ranked as highly in its field as OpEx.

    To set the record straight about pay-or-publish. In over a decade, no worthy OpEx article has ever been refused because the author was unable to pay.
    And there have been very many such articles. In fact, OpEx enjoys special funding from its parent organization to assist authors in developing nations.

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  5. Jonathan Post author

    Ken:

    I think you’re right. I looked into it, and the Journal of Machine Learning Research somehow pays for everything without any fees. The person who founded it is next door, maybe I’ll get up the nerve to ask her how she funds it. It seems like the ideal model for a journal.

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  6. Jonathan Post author

    Clef:

    I suspect it’s the “financial viability” of OpEx that others are interested in imitating, not the production quality. Having people submit documents in Word and just throwing them up on a website with minor editorial oversight isn’t even really production. Articles are often full of grammatical and spelling errors. In the current issue, I count at least three grammatical errors in the titles of the papers, alone. I will say, though, that the website is beautifully done, and well worth emulating.

    Finally, I’m pleased to hear no author has been turned away, but it’s kind of pointless to have that policy if you don’t advertise it well. How many people just haven’t bothered to try?

    As I said in my opening paragraph, I know Optics Express is extremely popular, and I guess you can’t argue with success. But I nonetheless lament the fact that our most popular journal produces articles of poor visual and editorial quality and puts the OSA in a position of inherent conflict of interest. Maybe the current editors have done a brilliant job of accepting only the highest quality papers, despite the conflict, but it’s best to not have such conflicts of interest to begin with.

    And I’m saddened that the efforts of the wonderful editors and staff of journals like Optics Letters and JOSA B are not respected or appreciated enough that the OSA is happy to make Optics Express its flagship journal. The OSA is right to take advantage of modern abilities like online publishing with free access and multimedia. But it’s a real shame that while they adopted flashy new technology, they abandoned the old sober notions of editorial proofreading and professional typesetting. Yes, I know people love OpEx, but the OSA should be setting standards, not blowing with the wind.

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  7. Kotya

    Being in the position of an author preparing a paper for publication in OpEx at this very moment, I suffer very much from the idea I should use MS Word instead of LaTeX. Not only does Word result in terrible publication quality, it is also totally incompatible with team-work, which is normal in current physical and engineering sciences.

    Next time we will probably consider submitting a paper in LaTeX and see what will happen to it. It seems to me that some PDFs appearing on the OpEx web-site are actually produced with LaTeX, and one can see it also from their quality.

    I wonder actually what are those notorious advantages of Word making OpEx editors prefer it over LaTeX?

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    1. Jonathan Post author

      I think in the very near future they won’t allow LaTeX at all, which is ridiculous. Having a scientific journal published entirely with Microsoft Word gives it the production quality of your average grammar school book report.

      The only advantage Word offers is that there is software available to automate much of the editing work, reducing editor workloads.

      The whole open access journal idea is an intellectual sham. It’s marketed as making information available to everybody, but it pretty much always was. You just go to the library and get the journal. What it really does is limit access to publication to the scientific establishment and institutions with sufficient money to pay. In other words, it stifles the spread of ideas.

      It’s really about money; open access journals make more for the societies, and they over charge for publication to fund other aspects of their business.

      Reply

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