Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)