[Taxacom] Paywall our taxonomic tidbit

Roderic Page Roderic.Page at glasgow.ac.uk
Fri Jan 15 02:15:48 CST 2016

Reading this thread suggests that there’s still a lot to do to make the case for Open Access. There seems to be confusion and misunderstanding about some of the motivations behind making academic literature freely available to all.

If you have 8 minutes to spare, here's a nice video from PhD comics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5rVH1KGBCY

Regarding the arguments about public money, the traditional model is something like this:

1. Public fund scientists to do research
2. Public funds university libraries to pay millions per year to subscribe to journals so researchers can read the literature
3. Public doesn’t have access to that research

Step 2 is incredibly profitable for some publishers, see https://libraries.mit.edu/scholarly/mit-open-access/open-access-at-mit/mit-open-access-policy/publishers-and-the-mit-faculty-open-access-policy/elsevier-fact-sheet/ . An academic at a university is mostly sheltered from these issues because it is free to publish your paper, and “free” to read most papers (if you library has bought a subscription). If you can’t get a paper you may be able to use your network of contacts to get a copy. So, at first glance it’s often hard to see what the fuss is about.

Open access changes 2 and 3:

1. Public fund scientists to do research
2. Public funds costs of publishing in open access journals
3. Public has free access to that research

For academics (assuming you have grant funding for publication charges) little changes, you publish your work and you can read it for free. But now the public has access.

Perhaps even more importantly, the work is “free” not just in the sense of beer but in terms of liberty. We can do things such as translate the text into other computer formats, other human languages, mine it for facts, index the text in databases to make it easy to search, and so on. There is a huge interest in text mining the literature, which publishers have not always been helpful about enabling (see http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/495295a and http://contentmine.org ). If article are locked behind a paywall much of this is difficult, if not impossible to do. If the only way to get many articles is by appealing to colleagues (e.g., the #icanhazpdf emails often seen on TAXACOM https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICanHazPDF ) then large scale text mining won’t work.

It may well be that much of the literature is of little immediately apparent value, but just because this may be the case now this need not always be the case. Anyone who has used the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) http://biodiversitylibrary.org will have come across obscure little papers that capture data that today may be very useful (e.g., checklists of species found in environments that have since vanished or been modified, or for countries that are currently hard to access). To assert that we know the value of all current research for all time is *cough* premature. As an aside, imagine if ALL taxonomic literature was free to search and read in BHL - is this not something that would be incredibly useful?

As someone who is an academic but who has no grant funding, and as a former editor of a journal, I completely get that open access publication fees can be a financial obstacle to authors, especially in a field with limited funds or where many people working are not academics. Nothing in life is free, publishing costs money. Some journals have fairly steep author fees, some are exploring much smaller charges based (e.g., http://peerj.com ).

There are lost of issues around open access, but there are much bigger issues at stake than simply how much it costs to publish an article. And I’d argue that for a field that is constantly complaining about how it is undervalued by the wider scientific community, any notion that we shouldn’t be doing everything possible to maximise the accessibility of our work seems, at best, short sighted.



Roderic Page
Professor of Taxonomy
Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine
College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences
Graham Kerr Building
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

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