It’s genuinely not often that I read an article and disagree with every single point, but The Atlantic managed it with their terrible piece on Open Access.  However, when  one of your chief sources is the executive publisher of Science, a closed access glamour-journal, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the article is so bad.  A bit like asking Turkeys if they think Christmas is a good idea….

The author, Rose Eveleth, mentions a few times the moral side of open access, but states that it’s not as simple as just looking at morals and ethics.  For me, the moral, ethical argument is the strongest of all the arguments – that those who created the research, and those that paid for the research, should have free and open access to the outputs.  Surely this is self evident.  Add a third group, those who most benefit from the research i.e. students.  All 3 groups should have free access to research outputs.  Forget money, forget business, forget everything else – open access is the right thing to do.  

The article staggers from one blunder to the next:

“Making something open isn’t a simple check box or button—it takes work, money, and time.”

This ignores the argument that making something closed also takes work, money and time.   Compare if you will how much it costs to run arXiv or bioRxiv, compared to the cost of running Nature or Science.  It’s not the “making open” that costs money.  How about the cost of PLOS?  PLOS ONE publishes more papers than any other journal, is open access, and is cheap to publish in.  The argument above is nonsensical.  Open and closed journals cost money, and I would argue that closed journals actually cost more to run.  Perhaps the above sentence should be rewritten:

“Making money from science publishing isn’t easy – it takes work, money and time”

We then move on to a bizarre section, where Dan Gezelter, who will probably regret this for the rest of his career, seems to suggest that people don’t release their code because they would have to document it if they did:

“It’s only scientists who are relatively secure who can spend the time [to document], and it does take extra time to make sure that their stuff is released correctly”

First of all, coders document.  They have to.  If they don’t, even they don’t understand what on earth their code does.  Also, if you don’t write user documentation, then only you will ever be able to use your code, and you are not doing your job properly.  Documenting code, including creating user documentation, is part of being a coder.  If you’re not doing it, you’re an idiot, and a bad scientist.  This should never be a barrier to releasing code.

Not to mention that released, open-access but undocumented code is still a million times better than no code at all.  I’m seriously embarrassed that some of these arguments made it into print.

After that, we move on to a section with quotes from Melissa Bates, who apparently argues:

it’s not fair to ask graduate students and early career scientists to bear the brunt of the responsibility

But is anyone actually doing that?  This is a massive straw man.  Of course it would be unfair to ask young scientists to bear responsibility, and it’s for that exact reason that no-one is asking them to!  Melissa then goes on to state:

“But there’s also a business model to how science is done.”

Sure.  There’s a business model behind drug cartels too – that doesn’t mean they’re right, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and abolish them.

The article staggers on to a section where Alan Leshner, executive publisher of Science, talks about the cost of putting out a journal.  Given that open access threatens the business model of journals such as Science, it’s no surprise Leshner seems against it:

“The problem is it costs $50 million a year to publish Science. Somebody has to foot that bill”

That is incorrect.  No-one needs to foot the bill.  We don’t need Science.  Nothing bad would happen if Science didn’t exist.   Life, and research, would go on.

Moving on to some more quotes from Gezelter, we get to a stage where the article compares apples with oranges and comes up with 5.  Apparently, the additional cost of making a closed access paper open access is too high and funders won’t pay it.  This ignores the fact that open access journals, such as the PLOS journals, PeerJ and FrontiersIn are all far cheaper to publish in than Nature, Science and Cell.  It costs money, many thousands of dollars, to publish in closed access journals.  Then one has to pay additional thousands to make the article OA.  Publishing in a straight open access journal in the first place saves money.  How can anyone get it this wrong?

Next we move onto the impact factor argument, and here I have some sympathy – the article states:

At a time when the job market in science is extremely competitive, the institutions combing over resumes aren’t looking for someone’s commitment to the open-access cause, they’re looking at their potential for big research.

And I think that is correct.  In the current climate, if you are a young scientist and you have a chance to publish in Nature, you should grab it with both hands.  It will make your career.  But lets not overstate this – I’m an open scientist and I have a good career.  My first paper was in BMC Bioinformatics, and I haven’t stopped publishing in Open Access journals since.  Titus Brown is an open scientist and has tenure.  There are others.

Moving on to impact factor itself, the most atrocious piece of cherry picking occurs – comparing Nature‘s IF of 42 to PLOS ONE‘s impact factor of 3.5.  Of course, PLOS’s flagship journal is PLOS Biology with an IF hovering around 11 (Genome Biology, another OA journal, has a similar IF).  Comparing Nature‘s flagship IF with PLOS’s lowest is a very low, deceitful thing to do – shame on you Rose Eveleth.  You would never make it as a scientist, we don’t cherry pick data to suit our arguments.

Obviously Nature‘s IF is still higher than the best PLOS can produce, but let’s not forget, Nature has been around since 1869, whereas PLOS Biology was created in 2003.  PLOS has a lot of catching up to do.  Conspicuous by its absence in the article is the fact that impact factor correlates highly with the number of retractions, and that there have been calls for a retraction index to be published alongside the impact factor.  I wonder if Rose Eveleth knew about this and chose to ignore it?

We begin to get some sense when Virginia Barbour enters the article, arguing that impact factor is a bad way of measuring how good science is, and that open access is about culture change, which takes time.  She says culture change is hard, and I agree.  We can all think of sins of the past that required culture change which was hard – but we did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do.  It’s what people do, it’s what each new generation does – we fix the mistakes of the past.  Open access fixes mistakes in scientific publishing.  Melissa Bates somehow manages to frame this natural, essential process as a bad thing – I don’t know how, and I cannot agree.  Some may try and make the new generation “cannon fodder” (as Melissa says), but quite simply, we should not and will not let them.

Finally, Leshner writes his journal’s own epitaph:

“I don’t see Science becoming open access in the near future”

I liken this to high street stores in the 90s, looking at the internet and saying “Meh, that will never catch on”.  10 years later they were dead, crushed by Amazon and eBay.  Adapt or die, that’s where publishing is right now.

What strikes me about this whole thing is how little value closed access publishers actually add.  Leshner is right when he says that the “circulation model” will die – the last time I went to the library and read a paper journal must be over 10 years ago.  This way of publishing science is dying, soon to be dead.  So what other role do publisher’s play?  In the era of the internet, they actually add nothing.  But here, perhaps, is their salvation.  Could they somehow add value?  I’ll draw an analogy to the cinema – why do I pay to go to the cinema when I can watch all sorts of great movies free at home?  Well, because the cinema has a bigger screen, 3D surround sound, popcorn, ice cream, hot dogs etc.  I enjoy the cinema.  It is a better experience than watching movies at home.  The cinema adds value.

So what value could publisher’s add?  Could they release all papers as open access, yet then provide additional tools (under a subscription model) that allow people to explore the data?  Maybe.  I don’t know what the “added value” is, but publishers will have to find it somewhere, because the current closed model of scientific publishing is dying; conversely open access is alive, is growing, and is the future.

As I said above – adapt or die.  Your choice.