Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Of open access, pay walls and sci-hub: a defence of the pay-wall perspective

OK – so my position is not that of a typical academic: I work from home, a remote location on the edge of a wilderness area, and I’ve never been able to make university library proxy mechanisms work for me. Instead, I’ve done what I’ve always done: email authors for pdfs, or in more recent years, google for on-line repositories. As a last resort, I’ll email our university librarian. Never in my life have I paid the $30 usually encountered with articles hosted by the big publishing houses. And yes, as of recently I am editor of a pay-wall journal.  

In the beginning, once upon a time, long long ago, I was pretty much a fan of the idea of open access: after all, it intrinsically appeals to the basic idea of what is right: that knowledge should be available to all. Later on, an open access journal then published an article stating that citation rates in open access journals were higher (shown later to be a controversial claim). In the meantime academics had 2 apparently good reasons to publish open access.

But we need to take a step back from moralizing self-righteousness: in the publishing world, there are people that need to be paid and so there are 2 revenue streams: either the author pays (open-access), or the reader pays (pay-wall).

So a couple of years ago I braved the submission system of Plos-One: the flag-ship of open access publishing. I was rather shocked towards the end of the submission to find out that there was a submission charge of $1500! That is right, one thousand five hundred US dollars. F me, that was more than my meagre research budget! To be fair, there was an application process to have this reduced (developing world submission etc etc), but after going through that there was still a fee of $200 liable upon acceptance. I was fretting about how to pay that for weeks, and I’ve never been so glad to get a reject-and-resubmit decision in my life. After revision, that article was subsequently accepted by a pay-wall publisher associated journal and I didn’t have to pay a cent.

Clearly, for the likes of non-university academics like myself, open access is just not a viable economic option. Ok – there are also very few non-university academics.

But that is not the end of it. For years now, almost daily somewhere in my spam box, occasionally filtering into my inbox, is a request from a ‘new’ open access journal of SCIENCE NATURE or NATURE SCIENCE or some combo of famous journal names begging for an article. Open access became a business model quickly adopted by a range of fringe science organisations, where profit clearly comes before quality.

And I’ll admit to having tested that out when an article that I’d written, not in my field of expertise and of dubious usefulness that had been rejected from reputable journal, was accepted pretty much as is for a fee of US$50. The journal was south-east Asia based, editors clearly struggled with English, and this was just one more article for their portfolio and a few more bucks in their pockets.  ‘Journals’ like that one thrive on the great pressure on researchers to publish-or-perish, and reach their minimum, surprisingly difficult to achieve, quota of 2 first authored papers a year.

The traditional news media world, e.g. newspapers, has been under pressure for some time now due to ‘free’ news available on the internet. However, with the rise of Fake News and click-bait leading us to advert filled web-pages, certainly many people are now willing to pay for quality and trusted content.  I suspect that pay-wall publishers are likely still around as they more or less are the guardians of good quality content. Certainly, there is a legitimate reason to request money to pay journalists and authors whose currency is words.  

The big science publishing houses of course have a portfolio of pay-wall as well as open-access journals. In a sneaky move by Wiley recently, a submission by a student I’m supervising to a good–ranking pay-wall journal was palmed off to a ‘sister’ open-access journal. When the crunch came to discuss payment, the journal wouldn’t budge on their fee: around R15 000. That is big money in conservation science. There was no choice but to withdraw and resubmit, to a pay-wall journal of course.

And now with the rise of Sci-Hub, where pretty much any article anywhere anytime is available through their super-efficient search and delivery system, all the world’s science is basically now open access.  So certainly, there is no longer the incentive to publish open access from the moral perspective of making your research available, except Sci-Hub is essentially peddling in stolen goods. Sci-Hub is certainly the Robin Hood of the publishing world at the moment.

I like that the logo for Sci-Hub is a bird (a crow?). In the spirit of Sci-Hub, I did not ask for permission to use this logo

While open access journals cry their amazing download statistics, lets face it: those of you who have accumulated vast pdf libraries, how many of those articles were downloaded with you thinking ‘I’ll read that later’ and you never did. Certainly, at a conservative estimate, I’ve never read more than the abstract of >50% of my pdf library. And abstracts are free anyway…

I’ll even go so far as to say that recently I’ve even felt angry with fellow South African’s who have published open access. Maybe they managed to get their fee reductions, but if not then not only are we exporting our science to foreign journals (a tirade for another day), but we’re paying for that privilege in a climate of #FeesMustFall! Certainly, there I must agree that the money set aside for academics to publish open access could be better used elsewhere (e.g. supporting the university libraries, student support etc).

So there we go: that is my voice against the ‘open access is better’ hymn I hear so often. Viva pay-wall publishing! If you can pay for your article, please do, and if you can’t: you know what to do.

Ps I was originally going to title this: “Does Sci-hub spell the end of the open access publishing model?”, but that is apparently not an original thought, should you care to google. But ironically, even sci-hub is not ‘free’ – there (illegal) operation is all run on donations, you’ll have to navigate their DONATE pop-up at some stage, and isn’t that really just a soft pay-wall after all?

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