Leader: Open to high standards

July 23, 2004

This week's House of Commons report on scientific publishing comes close to free advertising for open access, a new way of getting research papers into the hands of scientists and the public. Out go the fat-cat publishers with their high journal subscription costs and even higher profit margins; in come online archives, free for all and paid for by affordable charges levied on authors.

The appeal of such a system is undeniable. Journal publishers have long regarded the unique role of academic papers in scholarly life as a business opportunity. It cannot come as surprise to them that new technology is producing challenges to their lucrative market position. The open-access model holds much appeal, especially its ability to make research available to scientists in the developing world, where lack of funds or journals is a chronic problem.

But before this model can be established, several issues must be resolved.

One is credibility. There is no reason why online publishing cannot have the same high standards as its paper-based equivalent. But more solid online examples are warranted. More tricky is the position of learned societies. They are an essential part of scholarly life, and many depend on publishing income. The smart ones may opt to become open-access publishers themselves, lending their authority and their members' refereeing power to the process.

If open access succeeds, university libraries will have to accept lower journal budgets, while research councils and funders will have to add publishing costs to the grants they award. This transfer of resources will take time and argument. More important, online archives will need to ensure they are complete and the status of the papers they hold is clear. Nothing would be more damaging for promising new forms of academic publishing than the release of a small number of ill-judged papers that have slipped through quality-control systems.

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