The latest fad in the scientific publishing world is open access e-journals. In my field, for example, the Optical Society of America’s Optics Express has become one of the most popular journals, despite being only a decade old. The journal is basically a peer-reviewed website; people submit self-produced papers in either Word or LaTeX form, and those that are accepted are made directly available in PDF form on the website for free download. In theory, this democratizes access to the scientific literature, and increases the distribution of knowledge, but it comes at a cost.
In order save money, the OSA foregoes the cost of typeset articles produced by a professional editor. The optics literature is now awash with papers produced in Microsoft Word. Much of itÂ has the production value of aÂ junion high book report, except with more equations. Word was never meant for mathematical typesetting (and frankly it’s not worthy of anything published) and the results are abysmal and amateurish. Even though it doesn’t technically affect the content, we should take some pride in the presentation of our work. At best, poorly produced papers are inefficient to read, and at worst, they contribute a subtle psychology that says that sloppy work is acceptable and that what we do is not worth the effort to present well.
[Update: The lack of typesetting in Optics Express helps keep the publication charges around $1000 for most articles. As pointed out PlausibleAccuracy below, not all OA journals are author typeset. For example, the Public Library of Science has beautifully produced articles. However, they charge more than twice what the OSA charges to publish.]
In any case, this brings us to the most problematic issue: The way most open-access journals work is by charging an arm and a leg to the authors for publication. Not only does this limit the people who can publish to those with sufficient funding, it also puts the journal in a position of conflicted interest. As professional societies struggle financially, they are under pressure to accept more papers to bring in cash. With open-access, they make money by accepting papers. With closed journals, they make money by producing good journals.
As I understand it, Optics Express is actually a profit center for the OSA. They cannot possibly be objective about peer review when each rejection costs them thousands of dollars. In the end, editors have a lot of power; I recently reviewed a paper for a ultrashort pulse measurement technique that would not work for the majority of cases one would encounter in practice. I pointed this out, and recommended the article be significantly redone. Next month, I found it in Optics Express, virtually unchanged.
So, we’ve democratized the consumption of information at the expense of the democratization of its production. Do you want the best ideas to be published, or the widest distribution of marginal content? I’d argue that society is best served by making sure the best ideas are published, even if it means having to charge for access to those ideas.
While ensuring that people in developing nations are not denied access to information for want of money sounds noble, should we not also be worried about bad science being published for want of money by the publisher, or good science not being published for want of money by the scientist? In fact, perhaps we shouldn’t even be all that concerned that somebody who can’t afford a $25 journal article is not be able to read about a $250,000 laser system. I know that’s harsh, but there is a certain logic to it: if you can’t afford the journal article, you probably can’t do much with the knowledge.
I do agree with the principle of free access, but only if it’s done with integrity. Ideally, journals should be handled by foundations, with publication and distribution paid for by an endowment to be used only for that purpose. At the very least, there should be no overt financial incentives or disincentives to publication for either party. The primary concern should be the quality of the publications, not the political correctness of its distribution.