Quite recently my e-mail inbox has been inundated with requests to send my papers to Open Access journals and books.
The premise of Open Access is that authors pay for their work to become published and available at no cost to users.
The economic reality is that Universities pay exorbitant amounts of money for journals to stock their libraries and for access fees to published journals. In theory, grants pay for these services via overhead (think of this as a tax on grants by the Institutions). I think in practice that overhead on grants is not enough to cover these costs, so looking for an alternative economic model to make science publishing available to a wider audience at a cheaper cost makes a lot of sense. Here, the Open Access premise is that in this new economic model the overall cost to produce and consume published articles is reduced and transferred as a one time fee to the author.
However, if we look at the arxiv, it is a model of Open Access itself which is even cheaper: there are no referee reports and essentially no editors. The newest version of a model for financing the arxiv that I have heard of is that Universities pay a flat fee to help defray the costs of the service. The only incentive to publish in Open Access Journals is that presumably they get refereed by someone qualified to do so.
But if you ask me personally, the quality of referee reports nowadays leaves a lot to be desired: they tend not to improve the content of the papers. Moreover the reasons for rejecting papers many times boil to someone not linking an idea. I’ve heard of numerous such cases and I won’t go into details. Finding good referees is hard for an already established journal. It is much harder for new upcoming journals. Couple that with the idea that if it is already in the arxiv then it counts as being published means that getting the paper refereed plays a much smaller role than it used to. This, I think, is at the heart of why the quality of refereeing has gone down: refereed papers are not worth as much as what they used to, so people stop caring. External refereeing is still used by Universities to decide on promotions and it still serves as a check to refuse stuff that does not even reach the minimum standard for scientific inquiry. But having something published is not a guarantee of it being right: it has just a lower probability of it being wrong.
Now, consider the fact that grants are shrinking. Few scientists are inclined to spend money from their grants to do so: it would cut other services that we want, like being able to go to conferences. To do a full transition to this system requires a major revision on how overheads and such are handled, as well as granting agencies allocating some portion of the grants for the new open access system. I have a feeling that the bureaucracy of these changes will take a long time to sort it out.
My main complaint from this system is that the Open Access model has sprouted up as a business opportunity (this is not bad in itself). The real issue is that these Open Access journals are very aggressively promoting themselves. There are dozens of new such journals and it is not always obvious how much they charge for publishing (you really have to look for the fine print to figure this out). Moreover, for most of them, I have no clue who the editors are, so I can not vouch for the quality of the refereeing ahead of time. It should not be surprising that the argument has been made to me that it is in the economic interest of these journals to reject as few papers as possible to maximize their gains. Being blind to who is in charge as a scientific editor of a paper is a bad thing and it can compromise the standards for profit. This leads to a lot of potential arbitrariness without responsibility.
More recently I came across a case where “To preserve the integrity of the review process, the identity of the editor will be disclosed upon final submission”. The only thing I have to say to that is that I have no blind faith.
I’m more inclined to believe that the right model with Open Access will in the future be similar to the way articles in Communications in Mathematical Physics is handled: every accepted paper says who the referee was. The referee process is still blind, but if a paper becomes accepted, we know by whom. We should also know who the editors of the journals are. I also believe that if authors are paying to have their papers refereed, the referees should get a fraction of the proceeds for giving away time to a `for profit company’. This would not be a sticking point, but it might give an incentive to good refereeing even if it is a token amount ( I would still like to know if JHEP‘s experiment in this directions has been successful or not. In the absence of data I support the idea, but in practice this might not work in the end.). Besides, referees could also be staking part of their reputation in accepting a paper. So if a paper gets accepted and it really shouldn’t have, the referee pays for it with his reputation being slightly diminished.
I think that is enough ranting for today.