Stockholm Public Library (interior view)

Recently Read: Open access and other stories

There were several interesting stories this week on Open Access publishing. Open Access (OA) is a publication model that makes academic articles available on the internet, usually in exchange for a one-off fee paid by the author(s) [Read more]. These include the decision by Nature to make part of its content publicly available, concerns about the quality of peer review in OA articles, and responses to such criticism. Elsewhere on the internet, concerns were raised over predatory publishers and the ethics of using strippers holistic persuasion practices to bolster student recruitment.

Nature moving towards Open Access?

One story that is certainly going to have profound implications in academic publishing is the decision by Nature Publishing Group (NPG) to allow subscribers to create and share links to full-text versions the articles published in 49 of their journals. About 100 media outlets also can include free links in news reports that reference articles in the group’s journals. This move is believed to be in response pressure, by agencies and foundations that fund research, to make the research output immediately available to the public (e.g., the US Federal Government, HEFCE in the UK, the European Commission and the Gates Foundation). The new policy, which stops short of full open access, is described as an ‘experiment’, but it is likely that it will lead to some form of fuller open access in the future. Paul Basken, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, remarks:

The change is a financial risk for Nature, which recognizes that it may lose money from both subscribers and nonsubscribers who buy access to a single article, Steven C. Inchcoombe, chief executive officer of the Nature Publishing Group, said in an interview outlining the decision. “But we think the bigger risk is pretending it’s not happening,” Mr. Inchcoombe said of the growing movement toward open-access formats, and Nature finding itself in a world where “that usage [is] gradually migrating elsewhere, and us being left as a glorified digital archive making available content to fuel activity everywhere else.”

More to read: Earlier this year, NPG and Palgrave announced the findings of a large-scale survey on open access, which can be accessed here. In addition to the concerns relating to the use of paywalls, elite journals (e.g., Science, Nature and Cell) have also come under criticism for publishing practices that distort the scientific process. Citing such concerns, Nobel laureate Randy Schekman called for boycotting such journals last December (a year ago, almost to the date :) ).

Open Access and Peer Review

Continuing on the topic of Open Access, there was an opinion piece in Nature a while ago, arguing that open access publishing is responsible for the overall decline in the quality of scientific output. In brief, it was argued that many open-access journals lower the bar for publication, by printing any article that is methodologically sound, in order to increase their profitability. It was suggested that this increase in the volume of publication was putting strains on the peer-review system, as “the number of journals and manuscripts grows faster than the number of scientists” who are qualified and willing to conduct a thorough review. Rebutting this criticism, Mike Taylor argues that “Open-access megajournals reduce the peer-review burden”. In his words:

It’s an open secret that nearly every paper eventually gets published somewhere. Under the old regime, the usual approach is to “work down the ladder”, submitting the same paper repeatedly to progressively less prestigious journals until it reached one that was prepared to publish work of the supplied level of sexiness. As a result, many papers go through four, five or more rounds of peer-review before finally finding a home. Instead, such papers when submitted to a review-for-soundness-only venue such as PLOS ONE require only a single round of review. (Assuming of course that they are indeed methodologically sound!)

More to read: The Open Access publishing model has repeatedly been associated with poor science, in part because it is used many predatory journals. In this blog post, Ernesto Priego argues that defective peer review is not confined to open access journals. Another rebuttal of this criticism, specifically addressed at the Nature op-ed, can be found here.

On predatory publishing

Speaking of predatory publishing, Rebecca Shuman at the Slate notes that The Bogus Academic Journal Racket Is Officially Out of ControlHere’s a choice extract:

The predatory fake journals and conference scams, sure—they’re out to make a buck from a demographic that is famously desperate and famously destitute, and that’s odious. But let us not forget to blame the “publish or perish” frenzy itself as well. These days, it’s more like publish and perish; most faculty languish as underpaid non-tenure-trackers, despite publication so frenzied that even Peter Higgs (you know, of the particle? The one that was named after him?) insists he wouldn’t get tenure today. There is no reason to keep perpetuating a system that, at its best, churns out more legitimate articles than anyone can ever read, and at its worst allows someone to list “Get Me Off Your F–king Mailing List” on his CV.

“Get Me Off Your (…) Mailing List” reference, by the way, is a reference to this hilarious incident.

More to read: While Shuman rightly directs her criticism towards unscrupulous publishers, an argument can be made that the such phenomena are, in part, due to a problematic academic culture that uncritically rewards volume of output. Here’s an older post of mine on the topic.

And now for something completely different…

Fraudsters do not only use fake journals and spamferences to make money. In the US, a massive industry of for-profit colleges has developed which is sustained by federal aid for underprivileged students. Some of these providers, such as Corinthian, have come under scrutiny for aggressively recruiting students, who were burdened with massive debt in exchange for education services that did not substantially increase their employment prospects. “Aggressive recruitment practices” could mean a number of things, but I believe that the now-defunct FastTrain College in Miami, Florida, deserves a special mention for creativity. According to the Miami Herald:

A civil complaint filed by the [the U.S. attorney’s office and Florida’s attorney general] says at least one FastTrain campus used strippers to attract students, though it did not identify the campus. The college “purposely hired attractive women and sometimes exotic dancers and encouraged them to dress provocatively while they recruited young men in neighborhoods to attend FastTrain,” the lawsuit states.


Featured Image: Stockholm Public Library (Wikipedia)

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