What’s really at stake with open access is the chance to radically reform the way that we communicate the results of science.
That was my answer when MyScienceWork asked me to describe in one sentence the opportunity that open access represents.
While I think the basic philosophy of open access is right — the results of research should be freely available — I especially like thinking about using this transition to fix other things that are wrong with our publishing system. If we’re going to throw one ball up in the air — the business model for journals — why not throw a few more up there, too, and see if they land in a revealing pattern.
You can see the short interview I gave below. In it, I mentioned two more balls, so to speak. One is about peer review and the other is about connecting journals to social media communities.
Avoid the problems of traditional peer review
The traditional model for scientific publishing includes anonymous peer review. Your colleagues read and evaluate your work. They catch the problems. If you can respond to their objections in a way that satisfies them and the editor, your paper may get published.
But we know there are problems with this system. One way to measure those is with retraction rates. An article that gets published might have to be retracted if a reader or editor or even the scientist herself discovers that there was a problem.
Unfortunately, retraction rates are rising, as reported in Nature, The New York Times, The Guardian, the Why Evolution is True blog, the Lost in Science blog, and many other places. To keep track of this disturbing development, check out Retraction Watch.
Even worse than the tenfold increase in retractions over the past few decades is the fact that about two-thirds of retractions are the result of scientific misconduct.
Retraction rates can be taken as an indication that the pre-publication peer review process is not functioning at a satisfying level. Perhaps the solution includes getting papers in front of more people before giving them a final stamp of approval, thereby increasing the likelihood of identifying problems with papers.
Proposals for new approaches to reviewing are popping up, even in The Guardian. We are at a stage for experimentation with reviewing and open access could influence this, for example through an enhanced culture of accessibility. Perhaps the already exceptionally open system seen at BMC Medicine, which publishes the names of reviewers, their reports, and the author’s responses to their reports, along with the editor’s decision, could be pushed even further, letting anyone write reviews.
Engaging social media communities is a bonus
Open access journals and traditional journals alike can build virtual discussion and use social media to spread their work. However, there may be something more natural about using social media when the articles are available to everyone. Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature, recently said to me that there’s a prohibitive discomfort with tweeting links to an article that is located behind a paywall.
If other traditional journals feel the same discomfort, then engagement with social media communities is one of the competitive advantages of the open access model, and it’s a strategy that can add even more quality control to our enterprise. The most famous example involves the twitter debate about the arsenic life findings, as I have discusssed elsewhere.
If we could debate articles on social media, and if those debates could be logged with a virtual association to the article, perhaps we could see more quickly both the problems and the potentials of the research being reported. PLoS ONE has a rich social media community for every article, which increases both awareness of the article and public discussion of its claims.
And, of course, that’s our goal as researchers. We’re engaged in science for the service of society, and we can only deliver on that mission if we use all available tools to assure the quality of our results.
Sometimes I think peer reviewing could be more interesting if it were crowdsourced. I know that would make my ideas better. Maybe you’ll help me try that by hitting one (or more!) of the social media buttons below, and then we’ll see who has even better ideas for how the open access revolution can make our publishing ecosystem more robust.
I encourage you to republish this article online and in print, under the following conditions.
- You have to credit the author.
- If you’re republishing online, you must use our page view counter and link to its appearance here (included in the bottom of the HTML code), and include links from the story. In short, this means you should grab the html code below the post and use all of it.
- Unless otherwise noted, all my pieces here have a Creative Commons Attribution licence -- CC BY 4.0 -- and you must follow the (extremely minimal) conditions of that license.
- Keeping all this in mind, please take this work and spread it wherever it suits you to do so!