The open access wars

Vox has just published an excellent article on open access scientific publishing, “The open access wars“. While that is too provocative of a title, the article still manages to give an accurate assessment of the current state of play. Although I like the article, I can’t help but nitpick a few points.

From the article,

“We spoke with executives at both Elsevier and Springer Nature, and they maintain their companies still provide a lot of value in ensuring the quality of academic research.”

This is false. Publishers do not add any significant value in ensuring the quality of the academic research. Peer reviewers do that, and even then not consistently. True, the publishers facilitate finding peer reviewers, but this has nothing to do with the actual publishing of the research. The role of the journal itself (sans peer review) is just to market and advertise the research, not to ensure quality. The journal also provides a venue for signaling for the prestige-smitten researcher. It is a personal value judgement how much these other things matter, but they certainly don’t impact the quality of the research.

Organizing the peer review (as opposed to actually reviewing) is the job of a middleman: it may provide a service, but it doesn’t add value to the product and it only drives up prices. This is why non-profit overlay journals like Quantum only cost between 0 and €200 to publish. The average cost per submission for hosting a preprint on the arxiv is less than $7.

Which brings me to my next point: I was also a little disappointed in the article that they failed to mention arxiv.org. They do mention the rise of preprints, but they only mention prepubmed.org, which apparently only came online in 2007. By contrast, the oldest arxiv preprint that I’m aware of is Paul Ginsparg’s notes on conformal field theory, which were posted in 1988!

That might be the oldest timestamp, but the arxiv only started having regular preprint service in 1991. Still, this means that essentially all physics research in the last 25+ years is available for free online. In practice, this means that any time you need a physics paper, you simply find the associated preprint and read that instead of the journal version. This is especially convenient for a field like quantum information, where all but a handful of papers are available on the arxiv.

Any article on open access should lead with a discussion of the arxiv. It’s one of the most important science-related developments of the last 30 years.

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