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Open Access – a moral case?

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Should we consider the question of open access publishing as an ethical issue? Can we argue that the choice of one form of publication over the other is a moral decision? These are the very questions, which motivate Dr. Mike Taylor in his recent article in The Guardian

Mike Taylor makes his position perfectly clear, and sums it in a blunt – some would say, provocative thesis: “hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral.” He tells his fellow scientist readers: “If you are a scientist, your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. And if you bring new knowledge into the world, it’s immoral to hide it. I heartily wish I’d never done it, and I won’t do it again.” To the repentant Doctor, the issue simple: The job of scientists is to expand knowledge and bring it to the world. That knowledge is a common good. Hiding it behind property rights is simply unethical.

Of course, there is more to it. The author develops an argument in support of the position he personally reached, and deals with some of the principal reasons why scientists choose the traditional publishing models, instead of OA.  One of the reasons is, of course, the question of career development and the belief that without publishing in a prestigious title, one can forget a good job offer. Well, Mike Taylor argues that in fact there is no causal link between the impact factor and the employment decision, but only an insignificant correlation. He cites as an example the case of Berkeley, where half of the biologists have not published any articles in the flagship journal Nature and Science.

To a large extent, the impact factor is a determinant of the journal’s prestige, rather than of the objective assessment of the scientific weight of published articles. It is, in a sense, only a first filter, but it should not determine, as it often does, the actual quality of the science itself. The opposition of scientists against this state of affairs is growing and it is understandable. The problem is that, while an increasing number of universities do not pay undue attention to ‘the prestige factor’, there is still a considerable majority that accept it as a measure of the quality of a scientist’s work. A change in this attitude will not take place simply because of the opposition by researchers themselves, but needs also the support from the top; it has to be introduced in the higher education and science policies and programs of government institutions.

Mike Taylor also rejects the claim that APCs are some kind of an impassable barrier, showing that the majority of OA journals do not charge fees, and when they do, in some exceptional cases, they are not so prohibitive – “First of all, more than half of open-access journals don’t charge a fee at all. Among those that do, the average fee is $906 (£563) – a tiny proportion of most research grants.”

It is worth noting in this context that more and more universities and institutions introduce special funds, often not associated with any research grant, which finance publishing in the open access model. Often the problem is not the lack of resources but the lack of awareness about their availability.

These are not, of course, all the arguments dealt with in this article, but merely the principal ones, and they, in turn, attracted a lively discussion among readers, well worth following.

Personally, I agree with most of the arguments put forward by Dr Mike Taylor, although they are more in the nature of a call to researchers as individuals and an appeal to their sense of wider values, rather than a program of change. Moreover, the question about the ethical aspects of publishing in closed journals should be extended from the scientists and applied also to universities and other scientific institutions they serve, because it is the institutional rules and customs that often set the tone for the scientific community. It seems to me that the scientists and the institution form is a system of connected vessels that has to be treated as an inseparable, dynamic whole.

Without doubt, Mike Taylor’s article makes a valuable contribution to the discussion about Open Access, and invites us go beyond the current view, which can be summarised in the simple equation: Public funds = free access.


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