Hidden cost of open access

Disseminating research via the web is appealing, but it lacks journals' peer-review quality filter, says Philip Altbach

June 5, 2008

The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences recently joined the "open-access" movement, urging its professors to post their research on a freely accessible website. In so doing, it aligned itself with those critics of the traditional journal publishing system who assert that knowledge should be free to everyone and not the preserve of increasingly monopolistic and predatory multinational journal publishers.

For Harvard University, the decision is relatively cost free. Its institutional prestige and the prominence of many of its faculty will ensure that scholars gravitate to its website. But in most cases, open access simply places material on the internet to join the exponentially expanding universe of information. The problem is one of selection. How does a user of research select the best and most relevant material from the vast array of information available?

The traditional scholarly journal provides a means of selection. The peer-review system, however imperfect, does a reasonably good job of vetting research and scholarship. Journal editors to some extent control the flow of manuscripts, experts anonymously evaluate them, and the most deserving articles are published. The journals are ranked, customarily by the informal subcultures of the disciplines and, more recently, by "impact factors" and other bibliometric measures. The key advantage of this system is that it provides a reasonably effective means of peer review and selection.

Unfortunately, journals have come under increasing attack as they have become more commercial. Major publishers have sharply raised subscription prices and are increasingly resorting to "bundling", the practice of insisting that libraries purchase large numbers of journals together. And of course the more titles, the higher the price. Add to this the growing competitiveness of academe and the need for academics to publish more, as well as the proliferation of new journals, and it becomes clear why the costs to academic libraries are insupportable.

Simultaneously, as journals have become more expensive, they have become more indispensable, as citation analyses and impact factors gain in importance and are widely used to determine academic promotions, university and departmental rankings. Unsurprisingly, citation analyses are now in the hands of for-profit companies.

Profit, competition and excess have spawned the open-access movement. Academics, librarians and administrators think it is the answer to monopolistic journals. But there are several problems with it. Chief among them is that peer review is eliminated - all knowledge becomes equal. There is no quality control on the internet, and a Wikipedia article has the same value as an essay by a distinguished researcher. Open access may also offer greater benefit to those already at the top of the knowledge tree. A less well-known institution in a developing country would likely gain less attention than Harvard. While traditional journals also tend to privilege scholars working at top institutions, at least the peer-review system allows some opportunity for publication in recognised journals.

Essentially, open access means there is no objective way of measuring research quality. If the traditional journals and their peer-review systems are no longer operating, anarchy rules. Researchers will have no accurate way of assessing quality in a scholarly publication.

The old practice, although flawed, may well be the best way of communicating research. Scholarly journals owned by academic societies or universities or other non-profit publishers provide a filter and peer review. Innovative non-profit publishers, such as the Johns Hopkins University Press and its Project MUSE, creatively use the internet for distribution. Prices are not exorbitant.

Without question, the proliferation of knowledge and the increasing complexity of dissemination through the internet have put great strains on the knowledge-communication system. Open access may seem like a panacea, but it has problems that deserve careful consideration.

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