Open Access vs. Peer Review (or, Debate vs. Propaganda)
Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available. Some traditional journals, which depend on subscription charges, say that open-access journals and public databases of scientific papers such as the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) PubMed Central, threaten their livelihoods.
While the debate between the merits and pitfalls of Open Access and Peer Review rages on, those with the greatest economic stake in its outcome are pulling no punches in trying to ensure their survival.
What the big journals fail to mention is that open access is not meant as a subsitute for peer review, but as a companion to it. Open Access - essentially free online access to scholarly papers - is meant to complement peer review. In fact, the most succesful open access journals still use some form or another of peer review in their process. Indeed, current methods of achieving open access still use one form or another of peer review.
And what of peer review itself? While conceptually it is supposed to serve the needs of the scientific community (and therefore, by extension, the whole of humanity), there's evidence to prove that it has been responsible for more than its share of problems as well:
It has been suggested that peer review is an inherently
conservative process, that encourages the emergence of
self-serving cliques of reviewers, who are more likely to
review each othersâ€™ grant proposals and publications
favourably than those submitted by researchers from
outside the group. This could have a number of
consequences. For instance, it may:
- discourage researchers from moving into new fields in
which they have no track record;
- make it difficult for junior researchers to obtain grants
or publish their research;
- present difficulties for multidisciplinary work, since
peer review committees that do not contain individuals
qualified to judge all aspects of a proposal may be less
likely to approve the funding;
- result in the funding/publication of â€˜safeâ€™ research that
fits neatly into the conventional wisdom and work
against innovative, â€˜riskyâ€™ or unconventional ideas.
Peer review can be relatively slow and inefficient both for
funding and publication. Reasons for this may include:
- failure of referees to keep to deadlines -reviewers are
commonly given 3-4 weeks to complete and submit
reviews, but typically only 50% keep to this deadline;
- inconsistency between referees often means that more
must be sought, thus slowing the process;
- recruiting and retaining referees is increasingly difficult
(acceptance rates are typically as low as 50%);
- the lengthy time taken for editors and funding bodies
to reach a decision regarding the fate of an application
(sometimes up to six months).
The real issue is - as always - a threat to the profit margins of established corporations who are unable or unwilling to adapt to the evolving scientific ecosystem. Even the AAP (Association of American Publishers) themselves are very blunt about it:
"We're like any firm under siege," says Barbara Meredith, a vice-president at the organization. "It's common to hire a PR firm when you're under siege." She says the AAP needs to counter messages from groups such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access publisher and prominent advocate of free access to information
It bears repeating that this isn't a debate at all between Open Access and Peer Review. "Peer Review", by nature, is an essential part of scholarly editing and screening and will likely be present in one form or another for years to come. The debate is whether it will continue to be monopolized, commercialized and hoarded for personal and monetary gain by certain publishers, instead of serving to promote the quality and dissemination of scientific articles as it should.
Open Access is the natural evolution of scientific information availability on the world-wide web, and provides access to quality scientific publications to a much, much wider audience. Combined with a structurally sound, reformed peer review process, it can form the basis for a viable, self-sustaining, highly mobile, agile scientific publishing and dissemination platform - Peer-Reviewed Open Access (PROA). As young scientists, you are called on to do the Lion's share of the work to ensure the development of the protocols, standards and resources around this platform... but you are also those who stand to gain the most from it.
Concordantly, by engaging "pitbull" PR firms to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about Open Access, corporate scientific publishing firms are basically the moral equivalent of a child kicking at the waves as the ocean comes to bring down his sandcastle.