Perhaps I know something about Michael Eisen that you don’t know, that makes me very sympathetic to his Open Access (OA) cause. Michael Eisen is one of the founders of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and is a staunch proponent of full OA. In an interview I saw,
he described the experience of sitting by his mother [Corrected:] Michael’s brother Jonathan described the experience of sitting by his wife when she was sick and realizing that a large amount of information regarding her illness, which he knew to have been generated using public funds, was behind paywalls, inaccessible to doctors and scientists that might use the data to help. Eisen feels strongly that authors have a responsibility to eschew closed access journals. He has rational philosophic reasons for his opinions, but at the base of it all is the sentiment, which I share, that the scientific publishers make money by withholding data from people who need it most.
The OA debate heated up over the past month when my friend Isis tweeted that she was preparing a manuscript for submission. Michael Eisen asked her if she was submitting to an Open Access (OA) journal, she said, no, actually, she was submitting to a glamour journal. A…um… “spirited debate” ensued. You may be surprised to learn that discussion on the interwebz became a little tense and personal. Beyond the OA versus Glam debate, there was also added a dimension of privilege versus struggling junior investigators.
What’s interesting to me is watching the history of the OA movement crash into some new blood. Isis encapsulated her views in a widely read blog post. Her central premise was that as a junior investigator not yet tenured, she was not going to sacrifice an opportunity to further her career based on edicts from the privileged class. In her view, Eisen and the OA enthusiasts seemed to be asking underrepresented minority scientists to make risky career choices. To make matters worse, so sure of his beliefs, Eisen failed to inquire about the experiences of the groups he was preaching to.
My thoughts on this OA debate (also see #glamgame on Twitter and PubStyleScience)
1. I support the Open Access movement. Why? I became something of a zealot, I must admit, after a particularly painful journal rejection. I chased after SCN journals for many years, but my desire to publish in glamour magazines is now gone. As tenured faculty, I am privileged to be able to say, “I don’t need this,” and move on.
While I have a number of glamour publications on my CV, nearly all of these came from working with a high-profile research group with dozens of scientists and millions of dollars in NIH funding. As a middle author on those papers, it was long my dream to eventually ascend to first or senior author position on one of the group’s SCN papers. Some of my colleagues got their wish, and I’m happy for them. But it seemed that the path to success in the group was to be a “yes man.” That’s a role I do not play well. My research ideas were off the central theme of the group, and were never taken up by the leadership. When I realized that my patience would not be rewarded, I amicably departed from the group. And put aside my glamour dreams.
Where to submit manuscripts in my lab is done with consent and discussion of the first-author, and if they want to submit to a closed journal, I support them. I make suggestions based on their career goals. The decision about where to send one’s work is not entirely rational in my experience and is based on anecdotes and impact factors – measures I don’t trust.
2. As @DNLee said, “The most important thing a minority scientist can do to inspire others is to stay employed.” I agree. And I support Isis’ decision to take her data to a high-profile journal where publication could elevate her career to a new level. The old guard should be asked to move to OA. A glamour publication for a junior investigator like Isis will allow her to thrive as a successful role model.
3. Glamour journals are a substitute for thinking. And unfortunately, there will always be a market for such tools. I hope that with more OA, more scientists will evaluate the literature critically for themselves, but for many many busy professionals, looking at how glossy the magazine is a surrogate for analyzing the data carefully.
4. What about the jobs? The OA movement seems to relish the idea of completely dismantling the for-profit scientific publishing economy. It is disconcerting that the hundreds of people employed by this industry do not seem to factor into the OA world view. Dismantling an economy is easier than building one, and the prolonged recession has made clear that earlier cavalier attitudes toward tech job creation were misguided. For OA to grow, it needs to have an economic framework that it currently lacks: one that not only supports publication of the journal itself, but ideally also includes support for those currently employed by closed journals. This may require government support, for example, which is not currently on the horizon. (After writing this, I heard Eisen describe the thriving economy of OA here)
I’m looking forward to a world where OA is a central part of the scientific publishing landscape. But to dismantle the glamour system just as a young generation is aspiring to gain access seems cruel. I want the old farts with tenure and tons of grant funding to move out of publishing in glamour journals. I admire Isis for her focus on advancing her career, but it stinks to see full professors acting selfishly. Junior investigators need to demonstrate their hard work and determination. A hard-core work ethic is essential for success, and selfishness is required to build a CV that will satisfy a tenure committee. Full professors and tenured faculty could acknowledge they have attained positions of privilege. And they have a duty to recognize that, in addition to their own genius, they have succeeded in no small part through the support of their communities. After climbing to high peaks, they have a responsibility to give back, to help others up. OA is one way to do that.
Some Open Access movement links:
In January 2012 mathematician Tim Gowers proposed boycotting Elsevier journals (one of the leaders of for-profit scientific journal publishing). This grew into a “Cost of Knowledge” movement and gained wide attention.