During the summer, Chris Swanson, a fellow tutor at Gutenberg, passed along to me an article from The Economist: “Brought to book: Academic journals face a radical shake-up” (July 21, 2012). The article claimed that academic journals are facing a radical shake-up because the British government announced on July 16th that starting January 1, 2013, all taxpayer financed research would be available, free and online, for anyone to read and redistribute. The reason given for the new law was that journal publishers are seen as an impediment to scientific progress. It is true that the journals are facing a radical shake-up, but this new law also amounts to a potential revolution in science.
According to the article, the criticism of the journal publishers boils down to two things. The first is that it takes months to get a paper through their process, when the results can be published in days or hours on the internet. The second criticism is that the publishers have a monopoly, and they can and do charge any amount of money they want for their journals. They can get away with this because scientists have to have access to the published work. Scientists must read the current journal articles to stay current and place their work in the context of other ongoing work. So, for example, the article pointed out that Elsevier, a large Dutch scientific publisher, made a profit margin of 37% in 2011. (Even academic science publishing works along principles articulated by Adam Smith).
The critics of the new law claim that the publishers perform a vital part of the scientific process: they provide peer-review—critical, sometimes anonymous, reviews by other experts in the field. Peer review is the scientific version of sorting sheep from goats. Reviewers determine what gets published and what does not. In addition, they determine the worth of a scientific paper. The more prestigious the journal someone’s work appears in, the better and more important the work is seen to be. Determining the worth of a scientific paper is seen by the critics as an important function of scientific publishing. Therefore, the journals play a critical role in science.
But how will science papers be peer-reviewed in Britain after January 2013? Currently three options are being evaluated, and numerous other possibilities are being considered. One option is the “gold model,” a business model in place in the U.S. A non-profit out of San Francisco started the Public Library of Science and charges a fee from $1,350 to $2,900 to make papers available for free over the internet. A second option, the “green model,” is currently in use by the National Institute of Health (NIH). In this model, papers are published in peer-reviewed journals the same as always, but they have to be published for free on-line within a year. A third option is for scientists to publish their papers on-line in public archives paid for by a network of universities. In addition to these three options, numerous others have been suggested.
In the end, it will be interesting to see what option or options is/are selected. For over a century, science has been seen as a privileged endeavor because of its method and peer-review. It has been seen as resulting in more certain and objective conclusions than other endeavors. Peer-review has also served as a gate-keeper for making sure that perspectives outside acceptable limits of science are not given a platform for discussion. If an option leads to science papers being published on-line on public sites without peer review or “gate keepers,” then this will result in a significant revolution in science. It will be interesting to watch this development as it unfolds.