A changing world

Science communication has been undergoing a considerable evolution in the Internet era in spite of a strong resistance from both the publishing and the research communities. Open Access (OA) is finally letting researchers, scholars and students, particularly those in developing countries, acquire full access to scientific knowledge. Nowadays however, reluctance by these two stakeholder groups has limited this availability to less than half of the scientific literature, the rest being still hidden behind paywalls and unaffordable by many, even in wealthier countries. But there is hope that, sooner or later the whole scholarly literature will be available regardless of how rich institutions are.

We owe this encouraging perspective to three elements: 1) the unreasonable escalation of subscription costs, 2) the rapid development of a largely free Internet society and 3) a growing attraction to humanist values like sharing and cooperation. But will these overcome the resistance?

Gold and Green

At first the most efficient OA approach was dubbed the « green route » to open Access (aka Green OA), considering the somewhat utopian nature of the « gold route » (Gold OA), i.e. publish for free and read for free as well. Green OA calls on institutional repositories (IRs) to make documents freely available while preserving the traditional publication process. Publishers’ fear that Green OA would destroy their businesses did not materialise, as demonstrated by their still growing profits. Indeed, today, we must admit that Green OA is deficient in many universities in that institutional repositories meet low compliance levels because of weak mandates. Hence universal access remains low. If the « Liège model », a mandatory deposit linked to assessment procedures (see p. 76 in this reference) had been fully enforced in every institution worldwide, access for everyone to every published scientific document would already be a much awaited reality by now.

Whose fault is it ?

Why such a slow and incomplete progress? It is often blamed on the publishers but we should not underestimate the responsibility of the research community itself: researchers, team leaders, supervisors, academic authorities and journal editors who are scholars as well. All of them tend to believe in sacrosanct values such as peer reviewing which is in fact far from perfect and is progressively getting worse because of the growing numbers of scholarly articles (to the point that they are rarely read), often too hastily crafted (to the point that they have to be retracted), or impact factors, which are in fact only loosely relevant to individual quality. Scientific publishing has become perverted by those evaluation procedures that motivate the researcher to publish too much at the expense of quality and to try to do so in journals as prestigious as possible. Such a perverse effect leads to a mediocre overproduction that is detrimental to the visibility of the real good works. The advocacy that I hold against the race for publication and prestige is often decried by the elite of researchers, but they should realize that a reconsideration of objectives more in line with the capabilities of each, such as Open Science recommends it, would better value their own output.

Numbers, numbers, numbers ! The dictatorship of metrics

Prestige-based evaluation itself has been skewed by the use of proxy indicators such as the Journal Impact Factor (JIF). Designed to inform publishers and librarians on the global impact of a journal measured by the average number of citations each of its papers has generated in the two previous years, it has long been warned that the JIF is inappropriate to evaluate an individual article, even less a researcher or a research team. This shows clearly on a graph I have already published in this blog: among 1,942 articles published in « Nature » in 2012 and 2013, only 14% have yielded the 41 citations (or more) corresponding to its 2014 JIF, while 86% are unduely benefiting from an impact above their rank (data courtesy of Paul Thirion, ULiege).

Flipping the coin

Alas, although the principle of OA is now very widely recognised as the unavoidable road to Open Science, the free exchange of research information remains far from granted. Indeed, in order to preserve their highly profitable but doomed business model, the major publishing companies are now flipping its mechanism from « pay to read » to « pay to publish » by developing « article-processing charges (APC) Gold OA ». This is the utmost threat for researchers in developing or low GNP countries as well as for those in most other universities: the price to pay for the freedom of reading is the loss of the freedom to communicate. Anyone wishing for a universal sharing of science and knowledge (a prerequisite to avoid all extremisms) should look back at the original objective of scientific publications: communicate openly, so that science is widely shared.

Profiteers in ambush

Another threat is the proliferation of dishonest APC-OA journals, often referred to as « predatory » (personally, I prefer « parasitic », leaving « predatory » to the ones who are working seriously indeed but practicing outrageous pricing policies). Authors should protect themselves by verifying the status and rules of those in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) for example.

On the road to the promised land

A truly democratic future, at the international level, calls for publicly run open publication platforms that are free or almost, accessible to all, submitted to open reviewing and immediately accessible, a concept that could be called True Gold OA. Governments and Funding organisations would be well-advised to support the real costs of True Gold OA financially, rather than the exorbitant fees of APC-Gold OA as several have elected to do… One should remember that prices are being set progressively to replace the former business model of subscriptions which is not obsolete yet but may become so in a more or less distant future. OA has not been devised to save any commercial business but rather to promote open flows of knowledge, as Internet technology allows for, nowadays.

Beware of the traps !

However, this novel science communication tool can only be efficient upon two conditions: 1) it must be attractive enough so that the researchers become aware of the advantages it provides in terms of audience, visibility and potential citations; 2) the research/researcher evaluation processes must take this entirely new paradigm into consideration and quit using current indirect metrics. However, such an indispensable change in tradition must be adopted worldwide and simultaneously if no scientific community, particularly in the young generation, is to be sacrificed.

Open Access is a « juste cause »

OA is supporting basic human rights, the rights to knowledge, education and wellness. It is a real democratic and sharing approach to science. If Green OA is the easy, efficient (if well enforced) and cheap route to a forced obsolescence of the traditional mode of scientific communication, only « True Gold » Public OA will bring full access to publishing and reading to the whole World, rather than the small fraction of it who can afford to get an expensive access to scholarly  literature so far and who will be allowed to express themselves in an APC-Gold era. We need open public pre-publication platforms now !

Give Science a break !

However, today, Science needs a break.

– A break from the pressure to publish (or « perish », what a terrible and stupid threat!), leading only to overpublication of ever unread papers.

– A break from the frantic race to prestige.

– A break from the obsession of the impact factor which, in fact, concerns journals only.

– A break from the omnipresent evaluation of what one has done rather than what one is intending to do and how…

But this, of course, requires the acceptance by all stakeholders of a fully reconstructed panel of evaluation criteria because that is where the rub is.

Let’s not put the cart before the horse

Finally, it is hard to imagine that Open Science and most particularly its Open Research Data and Open Evaluation pillars, very much acclaimed as the future of scholarly research by political authorities in Europe and elsewhere, has any chance of being implemented as long as we must recognise that its first pillar, the easiest to achieve, Open Access, is not yet fully and automatically operational…