Information wants to be free, but at a cost

May 2018

Like everyone else, Vance Williams hates to hit a paywall when he is searching for a scientific paper. As an associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s Department of Chemistry, an institution with a considerable budget for subscribing to the world’s most authoritative research journals, he is better placed than most of us when it comes to gaining access to the latest information. Nevertheless, he specializes in liquid crystals, a field far enough off the beaten track to make it challenging for him to find particular publications.

He is therefore an advocate for open access, the name given to a broad and relatively new initiative that examines ways of making information, including scientific publications, more widely available. Within the scientific community, this is most prominently enacted through journals whose entire contents are freely available on the Internet. Williams sits on the editorial board of one such publication in his discipline, but he also sits on the editorial board of a similar publication that charges a subscription fee for access. As sympathetic as he might be to the libertarian mantra “information wants to be free”, he has gained a broad perspective on the subtleties surrounding the open access movement.

Publishing: Making scientific information freely available may be popular, but it comes with complications

Williams shared that perspective in April at the annual meeting of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada, an organization with some 600 members across the country. This annual event, held in Vancouver this year, hosts a wide range of detailed discussions about how science and society interact, as well as how it is being reported for a number of different audiences. To many journalists and public information officers, the prospect of unrestricted access to scientific papers is unquestionably appealing, and Williams indicated that academics like him regularly voice the notion that if science is supported with public funding, its results should be no less publicly available. All too often, however, that concept is set aside when scientists gauge the merit of one another’s work.

“When I come up for salary review or promotion, people in my department are going to look at the list of journals I published in,” he said. “Whether they do it explicitly or not, everyone knows which journals are good and which aren’t.”

In other words, researchers still find some practical advantages to publishing in an established, high-profile journal, regardless of the expensive subscription price that may put that publication out of reach for many people. And while subscribers may not pay for an open-access journal’s overhead costs, such as editors’ salaries, these publications instead ask the authors of scientific papers to pay, a move that can create negative connotations in the academic world.

“If you’re paying to publish your own research, probably that research wasn’t very good to begin with — that’s the perception that this whole movement is shrouded in,” Williams observes.

More fundamentally, he emphasizes, when researchers publish in open access journals they must also find the thousands of dollars necessary to cover those costs. If an individual’s operating funds stem from a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grant, which might be on average around $25,000, paying for several open access publications a year would eat up much of this amount and leave little for scientific research itself.

The ubiquitous process of citation also complicates the move towards open access. Standard citation methodology, particularly the importance placed on impact factor, is widely used to determine the quality of research papers and depends heavily on the profile of the journal that publishes any given paper. This metric continues to favour many of the most restrictive and expensive of those journals, which leads scientists to look to them as preferred destinations for publication. According to Williams, this strategy can enhance the perceived quality of one’s work.

“My best-cited paper ever was because it was in a high-profile journal, not because it was particularly good research,” he recalled. “Not that it was bad, but it was in a place that people like to cite.”

Conversely, outstanding research published in an open-access journal may not be perceived as such if that journal has not yet established itself as a respected source of information within its field. Although there might have to be significant progress before open-access publications are viewed as an equivalent or even preferred choice over their traditional subscription-model counterparts, some of these newer journals, especially those from trusted publishers and with high-profile editors at their helm, are leading the way in gaining the respect of the scientific community.

For Williams, who has worked closely with librarians throughout his career, the complexities surrounding open access publishing do not diminish its importance. Quite apart from discussion of costs, he explains, is the need simply to safeguard the very existence of scientific literature. When paper journals land on a library shelf, they are there to stay, but electronic journals can disappear if a publisher goes out of business or a subscription consists of a “rolling” archive that only provides a limited number of issues at a time.

Many institutions have consequently launched separate archives of research publications that they maintain independently. While the contents of such repositories are openly accessible, they must still respect copyright restrictions imposed by the original publisher, which means this work may not become available until years after it was first published.

“Libraries no longer own the content,” he said, emphasizing what a major change this represents. “We used to buy physical journals and have them; we rent them now. We’re buying access, but we don’t own them, and we are very strictly prohibited from just going and downloading it all.”