Open Access

2 ways open access can radically reform science communication

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.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Noriko Cable says:

    I totally agree with the principle of open access. The problem is publishing on open access journals costs lots of money! Another problem is impact factor of the journal. Academic impact is often measured as a form of publishing on the high impact journal (IF >= 4.0 or 5.0). We are forced to form a production line of publication. That is why so many journals have a huge back log of manuscripts to be reviewed/published. Nevertheless, we are forced to go for with high impact journals that may not have an open access policy. Solution for us is to break the financial barrier and to change the culture of academic impact.

  • Curt Rice says:

    You touch on two very important topics here: the cost (to the individual scholar) of publishing in OA journals and the impact factor of those journals. Regarding the cost, we have to find better solutions. At my university, we have a central fund that covers the expense, since we in principle want our scholars to publish in OA journals. But not everyone is there yet. In the long run, the goal is that the money used to buy subscriptions can be transferred to cover OA publication costs. But that’s still a long ways in the future.
    There is better news regarding impact factor. Several studies now show impact factors for OA journals that are in the 4-5 range. Nothing is as high as Science or Nature, as far as I know. But PLoS ONE is in the 4-5 range and is rapidly gaining status as an important and high quality journal.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Sverre Holm says:

    Social media commenting as a substitute for peer review sounds like a good idea, but I wonder how PLOS ensures that trolls don’t come in and dominate the discussion.

    In many newspapers, the comment fields are more or less unreadable because of a very vocal and loud minority whihc dominate the discussion. And if my Open Access paper gets 20 comments, 19 of which are from trolls and only one which gives a serious kind of feedback, then I don’t know if this is so much better than what we have now

    • Pål Lykkja says:

      To Sverre Holm.

      To solve the problem with sosial media is to bring with the essential features of traditional peer-review that is authority, sorting and authenticy, over to the social media platform. That means, to be able to sort out comments from authentic authorities, you need author identification. That does’nt mean that it has to close the possibility of being anonymous, but you need to establish routines that makes it difficult that one evaluator operate with many identities. Here is a very relevant and good review about the most recent research on this topic as far as I know.

      “An emerging consensus for open evaluation: 18 visions for the future of scientific publishing”

    • Curt Rice says:

      This is a good point, Sverre. I’m not sure what the right model is, but of course 1000 tweets at 140 characters can’t necessarily replace a few reflective reviews. I was thinking more of how social media could be used to supplement reviews and as a way to get more eyes on the paper before the final stamp of approval. Retraction is not only bad for science and for the involved scientists, but it’s also bad for anyone who has tried to use those research results in some applied setting. And since we researchers have to justify our existence by showing that our work leads to some benefit for society, we should do everything we can to avoid publishing problematic results (either those that follow from methodological errors or some kind of cheating).
      The article Pål linked to about open evaluation is super interesting. Maybe I’ll blog about it!

      • Pål M. Lykkja says:

        Most of author registration and attemts to object registration today are based on wrong assumptions about what knowledge is today in 2012 and in the future. If you treat knowledge as something discrete and static in the static form like a papyrus, written in stone or paper, you will loose. That is why Store Norske Leksikon and Encyclopedia Britannica is loosing to Wikipedia because they look at knowledge different.

        That is why Digital Object Identifyer is not working. What we need is *Evolution from the version of record to a version of the record (Herbert van de Sompel: Paint-Yourself-In-The-Corner Infrastructure)
        The DOI is not working is also because it is based on the assumption that you can build an scholarly infrastructure in a parallell universe beside internet. We have seen that traditional databases has tried that for a long time, but today everyone has to indeks free resources to be relevant. I believe that Repec is magnitudes bigger and more used than Econlit, and Scopus are doing more and more like Google Scholar, for eksample.

        It is important to get the time dimension in scholarly research, but we need to integrate a kind of internet archive into the normal web. Today you have to go to the internet archive to get a version of a web page. That should be unnecessary if Herbert Sompel succeed with Memento.

        If airline companies, Amazon, Visa and so on have no problem to properly registrate people and deliver service and goods to every corner of the world with all transactions is done on World Wide Web, why should it be so difficult in scholarship and sciences?

        I think that we are in the last phase of “mimic the analogue world” game with internet. PDF for eksample is probably not very useful for advanced text-mining, artificial intelligence enhanced systems and algoritms, or machine-human research systems. We are beginning to see books that have a lot of extras in form of videos and blogs, and links within the book.Audio-video will become more and more useful when the processor speed in Data centres is thousand times faster, and the internet is spreading to every corner of the world.

        Registration of authors and the scholarly assets is extremely important for utilizing Internet in scholarship. But it has to be done right. ISI Web of Science Author registration and DOI is based on dwindling assumption that you can separate out quality ex ante publishing, and that publishing is something discrete. Change in the digital spaces is feeling very slow, but actually it goes very fast. Even today it is more open access research than closed research (Cameron Neylon), Zotero and Mendeley is three times bigger than the biggest traditional database or publisher in just a very few years.

        When building a new scholar infrastructure we have to throw out a lot of old concepts and build up new ones from scratch. Even if the incumbents like Store Norske Leksikon has a lot of support today, it has no chance to succeed when it is mostly based on thinking goods from the analogue world.

        Just my 5 øre 🙂

  • Sverre Holm says:

    When you say “I was thinking more of how social media could be used to supplement reviews and as a way to get more eyes on the paper before the final stamp of approval.” then this is comforting. Some of the more radical reformists seem to advocate a full replacement of reviewing and I’m not so sure that will work so well.

    I review papers continuously and sometimes reviewers ask for a restructuring of the paper, or they could ask for a total review of e.g. the introduction. It’s kind of hard to imagine how one could implement such changes in a paper which is already published on the web – at least it’s hard for me to imagine that.

    But I agree, sometimes reviewers don’t catch things which they should have commented on. I myself have a recent paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America this year where we had to publish a follow-up paper to correct things in an earlier paper from the year before which I wished the review process could have caught. An active moderated comment field could have spotted that earlier I believe.

  • Pål M. Lykkja says:

    Here is a good example on how analogue paper-based adminstration has set the norm for IT education in UK.

    The pupil think it is very boring to learn Word and Power point, and they will not become a competitive work force with that kind of IT-knowledge I suppose.

    It is telling in that way that thinking outside the box is very dificult, but that is where we should spend our time and energy, I think.

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