Where I Question Commitment to Value of Open Access Everything


It is OA Week, so while this post would normally fall into the Thursday slot for my ‘regular” posting, I am putting it up now as my post for the remainder of the week.

The Open Access [OA] movement’s purported goal is to make research results open, completely, without barriers to access, such as paywalls; but also that the source data is available without barrier, that programming and software itself used in analysis is open-sourced, and so forth. The specific criteria for Open Access varies, but results show that open access and easy access of research not only increases citation of work, it makes inevitable discovery of that work easier. This is in contrast to articles or smaller work published in tighter-controlled journals. Problematically, not all OA journals are full open access, either Green (self-archiving, with ostensibly totally “free” access) or Gold (journal-sourced, with various levels of “free” access), (or one of a number of other grades, such as Platinum [no fees for authors, often-subsidized, made "free" by this funding] and Diamond [fees for publishing/editing pay for "free" access]) and these standards can vary from journal to journal, with selective choice of article availability. Mostly, this only matters digitally, whereas institutions with hard copy loan use and photocopy of journal issues or volumes to licensed or interested parties, at cost only to the photocopy process (and labor, when the institution is performing the copy work). There are reasons for journal selectivity, ostensibly dealing with the funding of OA: if the article is “free,” then the journal doesn’t receive income from sale of its digital copy. But as the digital age grows, and the information age looms, prospective researchers see an era where data flow is instantaneous, and free.

This has many, many benefits, especially in the function of sharing medical information without requiring students or researchers (or patients) to pay for the work first. Medical accessibility is, indeed, one of the strongest reasons to promote OA in the Sciences, and in fields tangential to medical, such as biological and zoological research, physics, and engineering, these resources become more and more important. Use of the archiving resource arXiv — like PubMed for licensed users but completely OA (no fees, no requirements for access) or figshare, where paleontologist Dr. Andy Farke has recently made an extensive habit of publishing his field notes for various research projects — has been prevalent due to its purpose: to enable in an electronic publishing era access once difficult in the paper-only era, to reduce the costs of publication or access to near $0 (cost thus limited only to those who like to print our hardcopy), and to make citation accessible immediately for researchers. These are all noble goals, but I question the commitment to OA on the heads of many researchers in paleontological and even paleoanthropological and anthropological, as well as zoological, botanical and related fields:

1. Research in the studies of ancient life are often competitive, due to the concentration of researchers in narrow subsets of the field, such as specialization on a particular group of animals, but also the often competitive nature of institutions. This is fostered by

2. Relative fame and an increase in resources comes to those who publish on groundbreaking or high-profile work, while

3. Profile of work leads to more and stable jobs for post-doctoral positions, competitive offers from institutions for teaching (especially in the medical schools for which anthro and bio and their paleo subsets are well-suited), even though

4. It may incentivize workers to not collaborate, as this reduces individual fame.

Some of these concerns are diminishing in the current age, and certainly while the field grows due to increasing influx of interested students, positions in schools become competitive, access to limited resources (money, fossils, sites, access from governments, etc.) diminishes. However, researchers are often at a cross-purpose with regards to OA: they do not openly share work in progress. Moreover, some venues may impose restrictions, such as requiring the work to be submitted to another venue (where the archive itself is not a publisher in the sense of a journal, or a book), or may restrict submission for copywritten work, which happens if you submit to a journal in which an embargo or privacy may occur.

I fully support OA publication, and have taken to using Open Source media to produce and render data (Open Office, MorphoJ, Paint.NET, etc.) rather than closed source, or for-profit sources (I still use Adobe Photoshop, but it’s hard to abandon that creature). However, my concerns over use of OA resources to skirt pro forma of publication, even in OA journals, and the prevalence of issues involved in OA even in ostensible Gold or Green OA journals, such as delayed releases, leads me to suspect that the OA advocacy has not reached its pinnacle. Nor will it as long as for-profit publishing holds the reins on the most popular venues for their fields.

But I am also troubled by some other things: Mostly, the availability of research that has been held in private, despite public funding or from institutions in which scholarly interest competes with income, and that’s the holding of masters and doctoral theses (dissertations). This is a problem, because it is common for modern work to cite these things, despite limited, or no, free access, unlike virtually all other research cited in a bibliography. There’s a problem with uncheckable work, or limited access citation (like the otherwise also common use of “pers. comm.” or “pers. obs.” citations, or “in press” or “in review” commentary, when the work itself is not evident). Theses are irregularly treated as “available,” or “unavailable,” or “available, but” with exclusionary clauses, even when digital copies are available. Part of this has to do with tradition, that of the issuing institution retaining both copyright and privacy of the work, or contracting with another company to produce photocopy of the work, or personal requests by the thesis candidate. This, if anything, demonstrates why theses and their like do not demonstrate OA.

I have a special place in my heart for a hate of “pers. comm.” and “pers. obs.” statements, a view borne from seeing people make a claim, treat it as authoritative or have it cited as such, based on an argument that is never demonstrated in the work. Such practice is supported BY the citation of that act by others, as though the work in which the “pers. [X]” occurs was the authority for the comment. Here’s the thing:

If you feel it necessary to support or substantiate your argument by making an observation, there is no better place for that argument than in the paper itself. What’s the difficulty? It is implied, but not stated, that the observation so commented upon will be produced at a later date, or that instead the current venue is the appropriate source for that argument. But no details emerge, nothing is tested. An observation is merely made and attributed to some authors, or another person entirely.

I challenge the commitment of researchers to OA by saying:

If you are committed, you will only cite work that meets “accessibility” under any standard of OA, especially but not limited to excluding that researcher’s or any others’ thesis, or any comment that is not demonstrated in the paper itself or by a work that is itself an accessible, published object (hopefully, this thing will be something with a DOI attached, or an ISBN/ISSN). That’s anything, mind you: personal communication, in press citation, theses, you name it. Not only are these objects not consistently supported by OA ideals, they are part of a larger trend of withholding research until later time, and in some cases that later time is in YEARS, if not DECADES. If the purpose of OA is instant, free, and citable work, this should be the standard for the work of every single protagonist for that.

[As a disclaimer, let me note that I fully support archiving research, making available research, full data of work archived, and the use of OA journals as much as possible; it is and has been my intention to publish my works in as close to OA as possible, while maintaining some variety of venues. As I am currently working on several projects that will be submitted to various venues, you will see the results of this work. Note that I do not speak for my own coauthors or the editors of work in which I intend to submit, but on submission one should hear from me on these things ... save for any taxonomy that might be involved.]

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3 Responses to Where I Question Commitment to Value of Open Access Everything

  1. Mickey Mortimer says:

    This is just stupid, Jaime. I cite people in order to give them credit, and individual people have no control over the government systems that control thesis access, for instance. So why should the researcher be punished by not being cited? It also harms science by ignoring real (albeit hard to access and/or verify) information. And all for what gain? If everyone stopped citing theses, the thesis system wouldn’t change a bit, because their purpose is a hoop to jump through to get a degree, and this would work just as well if no one but the thesis advisors read them. Thus it’s an act that harms individual researchers and science yet has no chance of changing anything. How useful…

    • All cited “information” must be explicit and verifiable; it should be verifiable in the paper/monograph/book itself, or in the reference itself which is such a format. A comment from some guy, without explicit data back up, does not count. There is a case for theses, but this falters when different institutions have different ideas about accessibility of these documents, who can and cannot get access to them, photocopying, etc. Let me argue a parallel: What is the difference between privately-held specimens being published on, but where access in the future is NOT securable, and a thesis or private communication? Memory isn’t perfect, so if there is no explicit record of the data being “pers. commed” or assurable access to said thesis, what value is there in using this specimen? Both PLoS [now] and SVP have enforced policies over accessibility of specimens being published on, much less forming taxonomy upon, so it stands to reason that all statements of data be somehow backed up in the paper itself, as part of its supplemental data, or by a reference which has similar accessibility as that paper. Open Access is intrinsically linked with verifiability — that’s kinda the whole point: No restrictions on getting to the information, and “pers. comms” are NOT verifiable on their face. They are not data.

      The other flaw with theses is that virtually all theses producers intend them not as formal publication, but later publication — including the degree-issuing institution — in a form “acceptable” to one’s peers. I also offered ways around the issue with theses: make them publicly available.

      How is this “stupid”?

      • Mickey Mortimer says:

        The privately-held specimen argument gets nowhere with me, as I’ve argued a few times in the past that even specimens lacking stratigraphy have useful information and should be described. And that doesn’t even factor in that many museum specimens aren’t accessable, become lost, etc..

        Also I have to take exception to your comment on how explicit and verifiable published information is compared to pers. comm.. What are most papers besides “comments from some guy”, after all? I’m sure you’re aware of the low percentage of discussed anatomy that is also shown in given illustrations or photos, and how inaccurate illustrations can be *cough Barsbold cough*. Even photos are often of low quality or misleading due to shadows, minerals, etc.. Then you have data matrices, which are even worse than pers. comm. because it’s so easy to mistakenly type 0 instead of 1.

        Your ideal of what “data” should be is simply not reality in the vast majority of cases so I stick with my policy of citing all formats. In any case, recall how often I’ve complained about workers not citing Czerkas in part due to his alleged illegally bought fossils. If I’m still going to cite works made possible by breaking the law, why would I care about something of lesser magnitude like how a particular format matches my OA ideals? We should use any data we have regardless of meta-issues since we’re doing science, not ethics, philosophy, business, etc..

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