Peers, review your actions

Help usher in universal open access - stop giving free labour to publishers that lock research away, says Michael Taylor

September 29, 2011

Twenty years ago, academic publishers provided a valuable service to researchers. By printing articles, binding them into issues and sending them out into the world, they provided the only means then available for work to be disseminated. But the internet changed that: now it's easy for anyone to make their work universally available.

Despite this, commercial publishers continue to post record profits. Why? While we weren't paying attention, they established a stranglehold on our product - research papers - and authors feel they have no choice but to go along with the system that's in place.

It's a well-rehearsed truth that the government funds research; academics do the work, write the papers and give them to a publisher (often paying the publisher for the privilege); other researchers edit the papers, usually for no fee; other researchers provide peer review gratis; yet somehow the publisher ends up owning the result of the whole process - only to sell copies back to the researchers who did the work and the citizens who funded it.

Everyone knows this system is a historical hangover, but the cycle is hard to break. University libraries have to buy the journals so that their scholars can read them. And because only peer-reviewed articles are respected, scholars feel they have to place their work in the journals in order to advance their careers.

So it is understandable, if lamentable, that we give commercial publishers our research.

But what's truly mind-boggling is that we also review and edit for these corporations. For free. It's the editorial and review process that gives the crucial stamp of approval to research. But publishers don't provide this: it's one more thing that we give them. We feel obliged to contribute our time, effort and expertise because reviewing is seen as a service to the community. But it's become a service to corporations.

Why aren't we more furious about this? Is there any other field of endeavour where such a grotesque arrangement would be tolerated?

The solution, of course, is open-access journals, such as PLoS ONE, which charge authors a handling fee to cover their operating costs and make the resulting articles free for everyone, everywhere.

The problem is how to make the switch to open access: it can't be done overnight. When the transition is complete, the subscription fees saved by university libraries will be far greater than the handling fees spent by research groups. But in the short term, it's hard for researchers to find those fees from shrinking grants, knowing that the benefit will not be direct and immediate, but only over the long term as the shift towards ubiquitous open access accelerates. The problem will persist because university libraries and research groups are funded separately.

So the question becomes what we, as individual researchers, can do to accelerate the change. Simple: we can stop propping up the for-profit publishers that lock our research away. Like many colleagues, I publish my work in open-access venues whenever possible. But I recently took a further step: I will no longer offer free peer-review to non-open journals. If they want me to add value to a product that they did not create and will not release to the world, that's fine; but they can pay me for my time and expertise at a decent professional rate - £100 per hour, say.

Researchers, I urge you to join me in taking this simple stand.

It is good news that the Research Information Network has established a working group on improving access to research findings. But Dame Janet Finch, chair of this group, seeks "a solution that (publishers) can live with as well as everyone else". Why? Does the UK government have a moral duty to keep feeding inflated profits to Dutch and German corporations? Corporations with a business model based on restricting access to research?

The status quo is not merely unfortunate, it's exploitative and immoral. By giving those corporations our time and effort, we are helping to perpetuate it.

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