Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Open science: why is it so hard?

Open access is the idea that scholarship should be accessible to all. Many believe that we should require publicly funded researchers to make their work available to the public. That is, if some professor discovers a new algorithm or a new remedy while on a government grant, you should be able to download and read the paper freely. To non-scientists, open access may sound like a socialist utopia. Why would anyone give away carefully curated content for free? The problem is that the content is overwhelmingly produced by scientists who have no share of the profit made by the publishers. These scientists are often funded directly or indirectly by the government. Journal editors are typically not paid. Reviewers are almost never paid. In fact, the opposite is true. Over the years, I have given thousands of dollars in page charges or conference registration to publishers. For example, several ACM journals request $60 per page to the authors (so that publishing 30 pages costs $1800). That is right: as a scientist, you are often asked to pay to get your worked published. Thankfully, most of these fees are paid by research grants, which often come from the government. Open access is a problem for publishers however. In the current system, the publisher has a monopoly on the journals it has published over the years. This means that as long as researchers need access to these journals, the publisher can charge millions for access. Open access kills this monopoly. Certainly publishers can increase their profits by increase the page charges, but authors can also take their papers to other, more reasonable journals.

Nevertheless, I could never get excited about open access. I find it annoying that I cannot download papers freely, but astrophysicists have already solved this problem without any government intervention or lawsuit. Indeed, nearly all recent astrophysics papers are on arXiv. What matters is the culture: physicists care about being read, they love the web. In this sense, open access is a short-sighted fight. Thus, a much more significant vision is Nielsen’s open science. Michael Nielsen is arguing for a culture shift in science: from a science obsessed with individual performance (and publications) to a science culture resembling more that of open source software or wikipedia. I fear however that despite all the (well deserved) press that Michael Nielsen’s latest book has been getting, too few people understand the importance of this shift. It is not about becoming hippies. It is not a socialist utopia. On the contrary, the system we have right now is akin to an highly regulated industry. All power is in the hands of the government and a few large organizations (universities, publishers) working in tandem. The barrier to entry is maintained artificially high. Open science is really about creating “open markets” with freer exchanges. It has the potential to boost our collective productivity by orders of magnitude through the removal of unneeded friction.

Meanwhile, American corporations are concerned with copyright violations on the Internet. Thus, they are pushing a bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which would allow the government to shut down web site that is suspected of violating copyright. Using SOPA, a publisher could have a repository of research papers shut down. While at it, the publishers are also promoting a bill, the Research Works Act which would make it illegal for government agencies to require open access from publicly funded researchers. If you are one of the thousands of members of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), then you are indirectly supporting this new legislation. Indeed, the ACM and IEEE are members of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). The AAP is a lobbyist for both proposals.

And we finally get a hint at why it is so hard it is to open up science: the business of science has become intertwined with businesses like the publishing business. ACM has to speak both as an association of computing professionals, and as a publishing house.

What should be a critical support service, the publication of results, ends up driving much of our culture. The journals become the science. The medium becomes the message.

In effect, we have too much organizational scarring tissue in science. It could be that we need to reboot the system. As a starting point, we should collectively recognize the problem. Repeat after me: scholarship is not a publishing business.

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Update: The ACM charges the authors of any conference for the publication of proceedings. However, they do not require payment for publishing in their journals: instead they request page charges.