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Open access academia

In the late 19th century, when prestigious journals such as Science, Nature and others first appeared, their exclusive subscription-based business models made sense. The readership for scientific scholarship was limited, and each copy a journal printed represented a cost to the publisher. As a consequence of this, a second feature of the scientific journal was born: in order to keep costs down and subscriptions up, they agreed to publish only those articles they felt would be of greatest interest to the scientific community.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, advances in technology and a compounding understanding of the world around us created an explosion in scientific research, which thereby stimulated the growth of this subscription-based academic publishing industry. As the industry grew, the journals proliferated and keeping up with the body of scientific literature became too costly for individuals. Another arrangement, bizarre though it may be, arose to deal with this problem: The schools and research institutions by which these individuals were employed financed access for all of their employees, essentially buying back from the publishers the right to consume the scholarship that they had largely generated. “Universities are, in essence, giving ... the end result of an investment of more than a hundred billion dollars of public funds every year ... to publishers for free,” explained biologist Michael Eisen in a speech to the Commonwealth Club last month, “and then they are paying them an additional 10 billion dollars a year to lock these papers away where almost nobody can access them.”

To demonstrate how absurd he believes this process to be, Eisen constructed a basic analogy. “Imagine you are an obstetrician setting up a new practice,” he urged his listeners. “In exchange for your services, you will demand that parents give every baby you deliver over to you for adoption, in return for which you agree to lease these babies back to their parents provided they pay your annual subscription fee.” It is obvious, he concluded, that no parent would agree to such an arrangement, so it is somewhat baffling that scientific researchers would accept it as one of the central pillars of their profession.

Eisen, along with Stanford biochemist Pat Brown and the Nobel Prize-winning director of the National Cancer Institute, Harold Varmus, has attempted to promote open access publishing through projects like the Public Library of Science (PLOS). After seeking pledges from researchers and publishers to commit to the mission of open access scientific publishing, the PLOS crew started two of their own open access journals—PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine—whose review and publication standards are, according to Eisen at least, just as “elitist” as those of “Science, Nature and their ilk.” In 2011, though, PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine registered impact factors—a measure of a journal’s average number of citations per article that is sometimes equated with its influence—of 11.45 and 16.27 respectively, while journals such as Science and Nature clocked in at 31.20 and 36.28.

Although Brown, Eisen and Varmus would probably argue that impact factor is a poor proxy for quality of a scientific publication, it’s also true that the PLOS project has not been entirely successful in drawing leading researchers and groundbreaking papers away from the major journals. “Colleagues, friends and even family members would stipulate all the flaws in the current system and praise what we were doing,” Eisen confessed to his audience, “but, when they had a high profile paper, would turn around and send it to the same old subscription journals. It was a very frustrating experience.” Eisen’s frustration stems from the fact that academic researchers have a tendency to measure themselves in terms of prestige, a currency always in short supply and which sometimes seems reserved for the top subscription journals. Prestige, Eisen lamented, “is a difficult thing to engineer.”

The problems with prestige go beyond scarcity. A 2011 study by Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall showed that a journal’s impact factor tended to correlate to its incidence of retraction. Put more simply, the more “influential” a journal was, the more articles it rescinded on the basis of fraud or error. Though there are admittedly several benign reasons behind this—fewer errors pass unnoticed in the widely read journals, for instance, and researchers who rush to publish groundbreaking findings are often treading in territory that is not yet fully understood—they cannot fully account for the shocking spike in retractions that has occurred in the past 10 years. Over the course of a decade in which the number of published papers increased by 44 percent, another 2011 study found, retractions shot up tenfold.

Brown, Eisen, Varmus and the PLOS crew have responded by adopting a second strategy for promoting their open access publishing agenda. In addition to PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine, which attempt to beat existing journals at their own game, the team founded PLOS ONE in 2007 as a means of circumventing prestige and impact factor altogether. “PLOS ONE,” Eisen explained, “dispensed with the notion ... that journals should select only papers of the highest level of interest to their readers,” instead adopting a sole criterion for publication. The open access repository directs its reviewers only to assess whether or not a submission is a technically sound and legitimate work of science. “If it is,” Eisen declared definitively, “it is published.”

Although some might object that the PLOS ONE standards could lead to a hyper abundance of shoddy scientific studies, the results observed by Brown, Eisen and Varmus suggest otherwise. In the past five years, for instance, at least five Nobel laureates have published papers in PLOS ONE, and since 2010 an astounding 83 percent of PLOS ONE papers have been cited at least once. (Compare this with the industry-wide five-year citation rate, which has dropped from 45 to 41 percent over the past 20 years.)

As the next generation of young, successful scientists comes up, contributions to open access platforms such as PLOS will likely only increase. Raised among failing content distribution dinosaurs like the music industry and Hollywood, few may regret relegating the subscription model of scientific publication to the ash heap of history as well.

Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every Wednesday. You can follow Chris on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.