Sunday, January 24, 2016

The beauty of being a scientist: why "Open Access" publishing is not a good idea

"BERQ," Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, is a new Springer journal dedicated to the study of complex economic systems and their relation with the availability of natural resources. Note how the cover suggests the results of the 1972 report titled "The Limits to Growth" that originated this field of studies. I have big hopes for this new journal that should provide an outlet for many high-quality scientific papers. For this reason, I accepted to take the role of "chief editor" of BERQ, together with professor Charles Hall. Note that this is a journal that is supposed to operate along the traditional format of scientific publishing, that is it is not necessarily "open access". I explain the reasons for this choice in this post. 

One of the good things of being a scientist is that you can change your mind. Oh, yes, you can. Actually, you must! Have you got new data? Then you change your interpretation; it is as simple as that. Of course, scientists are not always happy to have to admit that they have been wrong; they are human beings, after all. But, on the whole, science moves forward because scientists change their minds; how would it be possible otherwise? So, I can only pity the poor politicians who have no other option when faced with new data than ignore them or ridicule those who produced them (or, in some cases, jail them or have them shot)

This post is about how I changed my mind about "Open Access" publishing in science. Probably you have heard about this subject; there is a good article by George Monbiot where he lambasts scientific publishers saying that they "make Murdoch look like a socialist." Monbiot is not wrong: he notes first that scientists are paid by governments (that is by the public). Then, they give the results of their work for free to commercial publishers. Finally, commercial publishers have the public pay a fee to access the papers that the public already paid for. As a bad deal, it compares to the case of Esau selling his inheritance in exchange for a bowl of lentils.

Already long ago I started reasoning like Monbiot and many others. The idea was (and is): why should scientists pay commercial firms to do something that they can do by themselves? Why don't scientists self-publish their results? In this way, everyone will be able to access the results of publicly funded research. So, already in 1990, I set up an open access journal, "The Surface Science Forum." It was one of the first of that kind. Still in 2012, I was in favor of open access publishing (as I described in this post).

Gradually, however, I changed my mind. What seemed to be a good idea at the beginning, didn't seem to be so good after trying it. Do you know the story of the guy who jumped all naked into a thornbush? He said that it looked like a good idea to him in order to collect berries, so he put it into practice. Later on, he changed his mind.

So, I tried to put the idea of "Open Access Publishing" into practice and I worked as scientific editor for two open access publishing houses: MDPI and Frontiers. Let me say that my experience with mdpi was reasonably good, while the one with Frontiers was horrible. In both cases, however, the experience taught me a lot about academic publishing. And I changed my mind about open acces publishing.

In part, I changed my mind because the bad experience I had with Frontiers, but only in part. Where I noted the flaws of open access was with the current debate on climate change. It is a debate that should be, obviously, based on science. Sure, but what's science? Well, most of us would say that science is what is published in refereed academic journals. And it is here that we have the problem. Open Access publishing is one of the factors (not the only one) that greatly increased the volume of low quality scientific (or pretended scientific) publications. And that is not a good thing because it made it more difficult for the public and the decision-makers to understand what is science and what's not science.

Let me explain: in my experience, the rigor of peer-reviewing submissions is not necessarily hampered by the open access format. If nothing else, serious open access publishers (such as mdpi) are extremely strict in the process. But that is counterbalanced by the presence of a large number of non-serious open access publishers. Many are simply accepting everything, provided that the authors pay. Others simply make a mockery of the reviewing process (I once received I request to review a paper and in the recommendation form there was no "reject" option). They are called "predatory publishers" and you can find an extensive (and impressive) list in Jeffrey Beall's site.

You could say that a bad implementation doesn't necessarily mean that an idea is wrong. True, but the problem is deep inside the model of open access; in the fact that publishers make more money the more papers they publish. And the temptation is strong to publish as many papers as possible. This can be obtained even without relaxing the reviewing process. It is enough to publish a large number of "titles", theoretically different journals, but all managed by the same staff. The multiplication of titles costs nearly nothing to publishers but it opens up more and more possibilities for authors who, eventually, by trying different journals will hit the jackpot of a favorable combination of reviewers even for a bad paper. So, the average quality of scientific publications can only suffer.

Eventually, open access publishers are simply part of a more general problem that has been affecting science since the development of the Internet. Once, scientific publishing was expensive and often required specialized staff to help in the preparation of manuscripts. But now, with cheap software tools and a website, it is easy for anyone to produce a travesty of a scientific paper, full of data and graphs and signifying nothing. For a scientist, it is normally easy to tell what's good science and what's not (not always, though...). But for most people it is not so easy. Hence, the great confusion in the climate science debate, where the anti-science lobby was able to present pseudoscience as real science and confuse just about everyone.

After mulling over the idea for a while, I think I understand what we need. We need high quality science. And this high quality science must be recognizable by everyone. It would be nice if we could have high quality science within the open access scheme, but we can't forget Sturgeon's principle (99% of everything is crud). So, we should reward publishers not in terms of the number of papers they publish, but in terms of the quality of the papers they publish. And, unfortunately, open access doesn't go in the right direction.

All this doesn't mean that open access is always bad. On the contrary, it has good justifications and if - say - the results of medical research can help MDs to save people, then by all means, they should be accessible to MDs and to everyone who can benefit from them. But that's not the case for most academic research. And I don't even want to say that returning to the traditional way of publishing (pay to access) is the perfect way to go. Not at all, there are many problems in the traditional system, one is the excessive prices charged by many publishers. Still, if we can reduce some evident distortions, the idea that you have to pay something for the goods you purchase is a concept that works in all markets and that encourages better quality. And if, as a scientist, you think that your work is worth being known by the general public, you have the option of diffusing your results in a blog or in another publicly accessible format. Actually, it shouldn't be just an option; it should be the rule. If you think that nothing of what you publish is of interest except for some of your colleagues, then you can't complain if they say that you are a welfare queen in a white coat.

As a final note, the characteristics of academic publishing are changing all the time. There are different formats of open access that could work better than the present ones. Then, academic paper repositories such as "ArXiv" and "" are revolutionizing the field. They are not peer reviewed, and that offers a chance to diffuse very innovative and still uncertain results without interfering with what goes to peer-reviewed journals. Science is changing and the world is changing, maybe too fast, but we have to try to cope as well as we can.

In view of these considerations, I recently accepted (*) to act as chief editor, together with professor Charles Hall, for a new Springer journal, "BERQ" (Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality). The journal is dedicated to the study of complex economic systems and of their relation with natural resources. It is, ultimately, an offspring of the early study titled "The Limits to Growth" that started a whole field of research that many of us are still exploring. I have big hopes in this new journal that should provide an outlet for many high-quality scientific papers dedicated to this kind of studies.

If you are interested in publishing in BERQ, you'll find all the necessary information on the journal's website. BERQ operates along the traditional format of scientific publishing, but it can go open access if the authors so wish. It is a step along a path; the important thing is that it can give a good quality outlet for people doing good science.

(*) Note: for the role of chief editor of BERQ I accepted the modest honorarium of $1500/year that I think is a reasonable compensation for the extra work I am doing for the journal. 


  1. Fascinating post, and I am glad to hear from the other side of the open access debate. There is no pay-to-publish option in the humanities, so we lack the incentive to accept weak papers. I see open access solely as what the slogan implies: making research available to people without access to subscriptions.

    I constantly run into scholars, especially in developing nations, who are having trouble what to make of the flood of information available online. I feel like paywalls might end up doing harm to the very ideal of the academy as a place to find useful knowledge, whether in the humanities or the sciences. Of course, what is really needed is a media literacy aspect to websites like Khan Academy, so that people learn to seek out quality papers for their own surveys and decisions.

    1. I perfectly understand the problem with scholars in developing nations - basically I am one of them! (actually, I live in an "undeveloping" country). That is a strong argument for free access repositories such as ArXiv

  2. "But, on the whole, science moves forward because scientists do change their minds; how wold it be possible otherwise?"

    One funeral at a time ;)

  3. Maybe I'm mistaken, but the whole point about OpenAccess started when commercial scientific publishers decided to set unreasonable subscription prices for scientific journals. Of course, commercial publishers are commercial, so they are not philanthropists. But there should at least be some logic in the whole publishing system. Either the scientific work publishers rely on (both writing and reviewing papers) remains a free service to them, but then they should set a reasonable price for editing journals. Or they are free to set any price policy on the journals they edit, and then, they should pay, one way or another, for the scientific work they rely on.

    1. The problem is clear, the solution much less. In this post I argue that open access made things worse, but also that leaving things as they are is not a solution, either

  4. Congratulations on your new position with Springer. This reminds me of a quote by Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it".

  5. Your final url link doesn't point to anything useful.

    1. Whoops.... sorry. It should work, now.

  6. I think you have not identified the common factor that causes both the traditional system and OA to be dysfunctional, and it is that they are both profit-based. The traditional system also has a problem with the uncontrolled and unsustainable proliferation of journals, it's just that the rate is slower.

    I have yet to see one person give me a good argument why scientific publishing should be profit-based.

    There is a straightforward solution to the whole mess. The journals as they exist today are largely preserved (with some serious culling of the garbage ones) but they are all nationalized and everything is available for free (except if you want a print copy). Well, not exactly nationalized, because they should not belong to any nation, but they can be run by the UN as non-profits, with the costs split between member countries according to who published how much in a certain period prior to the current year. The total costs would be much lower once profits are taken out of the equation and once the system is optimized and consolidated -- instead of running hundreds of different websites and submissions systems for all the journals, there would be just one. Much simpler and cheaper, and the infrastructure and experience to handle that already exist in the form of various public databases such as NLM. Peer review stays the same as before, the established hierarchy of journals can stay the same too (whether that's a good thing or not is debatable, but let's keep it as it is for the time being), but the "we will publish anything as long as you pay" practice will disappear and the proliferation of journals will also stop as it will be much more difficult to start a new one.

    Given that it is governmental funding agencies that indirectly pay for at least half of the publishing costs right now, probably more, whether it is OA or non-OA, this strikes me as a very rational solution.

    1. And all this has to do with a fundamental question: how do we manage complex systems? Specifically, the complex system here is the academic publication system. As all complex systems, it tends to go chaotic if it doesn't have some kind of hierarchical structure. In other words, you have to be able to tell what is good and what is bad - a form of hierarchy. Theoretically, you don't need money to build up a hierarchy; after all, the term hierarchy comes from "hieros", which means "holy." But we built up the management system in our society using money - which is not very holy, indeed! In practice, however, this is the society we live in and, at present, a workable hierarchical system of academic papers can be built exploiting the market and the profit system. I agree that it is far from perfect, but it can be workable as we think of something better than the open access system. And now I notice that I wrote almost a full post as a comment; so I think I'd better stop here; just nothing that we are far from perfection and that my idea is just to go one step in the right direction. Then, the path is long....

  7. As a person interested in science and often wanting to read original papers, but not affiliated to any recognized scientific instituion, I deeply loathe the paywalls I meet regularly. To pay 35 USD or so every time is simply out of the question.
    Sometimes, one finds the paper somewhere on the website of the author institution, but seldomly.
    So for me personally, Open Access is good.
    On the other hand, I see the problem of not only too many papers beeing published, but too many papers, bad or good, at all - who can read all this? How fast do you need to become in reading papers to be able to keep track? But maybe, this is not so much a problem of publishing, but of science itself, spreading out more and more.
    Concerning quality assurance: I imagine a quality index for every journal, generated by a voting system. Actually, there is such a thing, the citation index.
    I wish you success with the new paper and high quality papers...

  8. Hi there Ugo,

    I really fail to fathom your reasoning in this post. This is the very first time I see someone claiming Open Access increases the number of publications. Publishing an article at Frontiers costs to authors 1 500 $, while at Elsevier and Springer costs in the order of 3 000 $. I was never able to fund Open Access to any of my articles, as national and European science foundations/institutions usually do not provide such funds. Note that in most journals articles start by being closed access and only later evolve to Open Access. An Open Access article not only needs to pass through peer review, it must also get the extra funding, they are therefore harder to publish.

    I took part in the boycott to Elsevier some years back precisely due to your influence. And I stand by the reasoning that compelled me: public funded science should not possibly be hidden from the general public. This has nothing to do with the quality or the number of publications out there. Impact factors and journal rankings are pretty able in separating the wheat from the chaff.

    What is more startling in this is that actually BERQ is also abridged by Springer's Open Access policy (there is even a link from the journal main page).

    In any case, best wishes for BERQ. You are certainly the right person for that position.

  9. Luis, if you publish on mdpi, it will cost you much less. And you can find predatory publishers publishing your papers for a few hundred dollars and offer you wholesale discounts. And thanks for the comment about BERQ, you are also the right person to publish in there!

  10. The problem for me is that for payment, it always pushes you towards subscription (something I don't want or need) or outrageous price per article, like $30 or something.

    If easy to use, one time payment no details asked, for something like $2 to $5 per paper was the norm, maybe things would be different.

    1. Yes; this is totally silly on the part of publishers. If they wanted to look like ogres in the market, they totally succeeded. That's especially true for old scientific papers. Those that are older than five years should be free. They are worth no more than newspapers of the day before. Good for wrapping apples or oranges, but nothing more.

  11. the issue is: why taxpayers have to pay for research while not being able to read the results? make all academia become private and profit driven then?

  12. The concept of "Peer Review" is itself flawed. If you are being reviewed by "peers", they all tend to buy the same Group Think, whatever that might be for the editors of the journal. It's no different than blogs really, other than the fact you need to drop more graphs and charts and references and bibliography in an academic paper. The journal will end up reflecting the bias of whoever does the "peer review".

    Overall, Scientific Journals are an anachronism. Nobody reads them except other scientists interested in the particular topic covered by a particular journal. They're hardly mainstream reading material, and besides the fact that the math in them will generally go beyond what 99% of the population can parse is the fact that most scientists can't write a decent paragraph worth a plugged nickel and the papers become incomprehensible because the prose is so bad. lol.

    All this conspires to make their retail sales potential extremely low in volume, thus the reason for High, High Prices Every Day on subscriptions to Scientific Journals. To make up for Low Volume, they have to charge High Prices if anybody is gonna make any money.

    I am quite certain you will edit up a good Journal Ugo, but it won't make any money nor will many people read it, certainly not any Policy makers in Goobermint. So again it is much like a Blog, you publish it just to get the Truth as you see it out, but it has little to no effect on how things progress here.

    Hopefully it will generate enough revenue to justify the $1500 Honorarium you are getting for editing it.


    1. You have it right on many points, RE. Especially on the one that I won't make any money out of this!

    2. "the math in them will generally go beyond what 99% of the population can parse".

      Maybe the jargon go beyond what 99% of the population can parse.

      This is an example of "jargon semplification" on behalf of the 99%.!/ScientificCommunicationAsSequentialArt



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)