Confessions of an Open Access Agnostic

The office that I worked in a few years ago had a window that opened onto the main University of Sheffield concourse. Every so often, lunchtimes would be enlivened by a student protest (typically over fees), during which someone with a megaphone would shout a lot. I remember clearly being struck with the thought, “I wonder if anyone has ever changed their mind about anything as a result of something they heard through a megaphone?” It certainly doesn’t work on me. Even if I broadly agree with the shouty person, the louder they shout the more inclined I am to pick holes in their argument. It is a character trait of mine, I’m not sure if you would call it a flaw or a virtue, that I hate being told what to do and, especially, what to think.

All of this explains, perhaps, my ambivalence towards Open Access (OA) publishing. I don’t like being told where I can and can’t publish. I distrust zealots, including well-resourced single-issue campaign groups which will hear no alternative views, which present shades of grey as simple black/white dichotomies, and which (a pet hate) bandy around variants on that tabloid favourite ‘tax-payers’ money’ (when they mean ‘public money’). I worry about people being pressurised into publishing in inappropriate journals, or – if they decide to stick with a non-AO journal, for whatever reason – not receiving the quality of review they deserve because of misguided boycotts. I don’t appreciate non-scientists in the media wading in with their ’aren’t you silly, you’ve been doing this all wrong for decades’ line. And I’m wary of the creeping sense – by no means restricted to science – that content should always be free, regardless of the costs involved in producing it. I’m not comfortable with the big publishers making huge profits from the outputs of science, but I also recognise that good publishers (and their employees) have done, and continue to do a terrific job to ensure the effective communication of science.

Of course, there is a more nuanced debate going on underneath the bluster. From what I see on Twitter, today’s debate at Imperial seems to be a good example (#OAdebate). Some very clever and thoughtful people have weighed things up and come down on the side of OA. And I’m not even sure that I don’t agree with them. Certainly, I am all in favour of the broader Open Science agenda – opening up the data we produce, and the tools we use to access and analyse it. But I remain to be convinced that access to primary research papers is such a big issue that it should be pushed above all else (partly because, with a bit of effort or an email or two, it’s usually possible to access most recent papers), and that all of this energy should be focused on it (whilst overlooking the interesting and potentially profound financial and sociological implications for scientists and their institutions).

My beef is not at all with OA, but rather in the way that the debate has been framed in terms of good and evil, right and wrong (not a million miles from the ongoing GM debate). Subscription-based (reader pays) publication of publicly-funded research costs public money, and has pros and cons. OA (author pays) publication of publicly funded-research costs public money, and has pros and cons. A shift to OA will not (I’m pretty certain) be accompanied by an injection of new cash, but will rather see a shift from funding infrastructure (especially libraries) to funding individuals (e.g. through research grants). And the debate should be on how best we spend limited public money to communicate the outputs of research in the most effective way. It could be that making all primary research available to everyone is the way to do this (although I don’t think accessing papers is quite so difficult as some would have us believe; and in any case, the readership for the vast majority of papers is tiny). It could be that we’d be better advised to concentrate on more effective communication of key results in other formats, or in making other products of our research (especially data) more widely available. Even if we hold OA as something to aspire to, I feel that blindly pushing it as a top priority risks sidelining more important debates about opening up science.

So thanks, but I won’t be signing any petitions just now.