Thursday, June 13, 2013

Science—"Free for All” or "Free-for-All”? (Part 3 of a series)

Since the initial 1665 publication of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, followed by publication of the first fully peer-reviewed journal, Medical Essays and Observations, by Royal Society of Edinburgh, scholarly societies have played an important role in ensuring the validity, rigor, and accuracy of scientific publications. With paper publications came a high printing cost; one which societies offset by offering subscriptions. This high cost of the printed page provided a sort of “filter,” by which only the highest quality manuscripts made it into print.

Recent advances in e-publishing and internet distribution have changed the scholarly publication landscape forever, with the possibility of low-cost publishing, including “unlimited” online distribution of scientific publications. This step, coupled with the recent push towards open access, has enticed many entrepreneurs to develop purely open access journals. Many of these journals use an author-pays model, in which authors pay to publish their materials, which are then distributed electronically for “free.” Authors (or is it funding agencies?) become the publisher’s customers. In this financial model, publishers are faced with a pressure to publish papers—the more papers the better, often with limited editorial or quality oversight. Conversely, only those with funding can publish. On the other hand, the publishers could use some oversight. Consider the American Journal of Earth and Planetary Science author guidelines, which state “publication charge are need for article maintenance, long times keeps for archives. All reader cans read article absolutely free and readers can print, download and copy. (Before publication author need to pay publication fee and after made payment author need to send payment made receipt to publisher.)” [sic]. Perhaps not surprisingly, with many of these publication outlets, quality and integrity issues have arisen. For example, consider the penetrating and life-altering paper, “The Subtotal Button for Summarizing Data in an Excel Database,” published in 2011 by the Journal of Knowledge Management, Economics and Information Technology, or perhaps the more recent (and relevant?) “What is Good e-Learning?” Is this the future of scientific publishing???

Unchecked implementation of aspects of open access can be incongruous with the goal of excellence in scientific communication. Beyond these issues of quality with some open access titles, unfortunate situations can arise, even if a quality paper is published.

Open access advocates commonly seek to use a Creative Commons license. A large open access publisher, Public Library of Science, or PLoS, uses a version of the license that permits “anyone to download, reuse, reprint, modify, distribute, and/or copy the content as long as the original authors and source are cited. No permission is required from the authors or the publishers.” [emphasis in original] This license means that anyone, anywhere, can freely re-post or re-publish any or all of the original work, as long as the original is cited. [This license is the same required by the Research Council of the United Kingdom (RCUK).] Unscrupulous publishers appear to take advantage of this license, as evidenced by two recent accusations of plagiarism in which entire open access PLoS papers were re-published in sketchy journals. Interestingly, these shady journals even had acknowledged editorial board members who were not even aware that they were listed.

Even more egregious are publishers such as Open Research Network (ORN), a new publisher with 86 journal titles. Their website trumpets that they are “a purpose-driven and open-source knowledge dissemination organization” with the mission of “sharing academic knowledge through Publishing the most exciting researches with respect to the subjects of our Journals and providing a rapid turn-around time possible." Some titles are so new that they do not have an editorial board; others appear to have been generated by an innovative method: ORN copied them, word for word, from another publisher!!! Unfortunately, this publisher is not an outlier; see the blog by Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at University of Colorado-Denver, for continuing insights. These, and other predatory open access publishers clearly act only to lower the bar in scientific publishing.

Perhaps the moral of this study is that authors of papers with CC-BY licenses should be aware that their work may re-appear in other places—and authors should consider if “free access” should be synonymous with “free to use as you like.” Whatever the case, science is not furthered via a free-for-all.

Scholarly societies serve to aggregate and organize the community, and are dedicated to excellence in publications. Unlike for-profit publishers whose subscription profits go to shareholders, or author-pays open access journals that have pressure to publish more papers to profit, JSR serves the community by vetting high-quality contributions to sedimentary geology and paleontology. The long (and continuing) publication history of influential papers and high (and rising) citation indices in JSR (and other SEPM publications) are, and will continue to be, a manifestation of this focus. 

This post represents one of a series in JSR Paper Clips.   These posts are available here:

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