This is a commentary article on a recent editorial published in Nature and authored by Adriano Aguzzi. He proposes a new idea – Public Service Open Access (PSOA) – to overcome problems related to “open access” publications, a format he calls “broken access”. I have some major concerns with this proposal.
If you are not a scientist, and are unfamiliar with how the scientific publishing system works, we suggest you read this in-depth explanatory article.
Science journals have long been the key instrument for spreading scientific knowledge. In the past decades, growing concerns over the big profits of the main publishers such as Springer Nature and Elsevier have set the basis for the foundation of “open access” journals.
In journals adopting the traditional model, authors pay a fee to publish, and readers pay to access published contents.
In contrast, open access publications are freely available online for everybody, but authors are additionally required to pay Article Processing Charges (APCs), to make up for those publishing costs that are no longer covered by readers.
Adriano Aguzzi, a leading scientist in the field of prion diseases (neurodegenerative diseases such as Mad cow disease) at the University of Zurich, recently published an editorial in Nature entitled “Broken access publishing corrodes quality”. He opens with calling the open access format “Broken access”, and criticizes the Plan S initiative, which requires scientists funded with public grants to publish in open access journals.
The problem with open access is that journals profit more when they publish a higher number of papers. It is therefore tempting for a publisher to increase the number of published articles at the cost of an overall decrease in their quality, explains Aguzzi.
To overcome this problem, he suggests a format called Public Service Open Access (PSOA), which “uncouples the publisher’s revenues from the number of papers published”. According to this model, published contents would be freely accessible for readers, and authors could also publish their research for free.
Journals would sustain their businesses by directly applying for public grants and get funded according to the quality of their services, and of the articles they publish.
Aguzzi is the editor-in-chief of the first journal to adopt this system, the “Swiss Medical Weekly”, which is supported by several institutions including the Swiss Medical Foundation (FMH) and the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS).
Although the idea is sound and progressive, there are some important concerns.
First of all, this will be a stimulus for scientific journals to lobby institutions that provide public grants for research. While journals are already actively lobbying the scientific community (discussed here), this would provide an incentive to additionally infiltrate the public domain directly.
For example, we mentioned that the “Swiss Medical Weekly” relies on multiple local supporting institutions. It is unsurprising to learn that Aguzzi himself, being a prominent figure in the Swiss medical and scientific community, is able to gather support from sources that are within his sphere of influence. This type of lobbying, which is not wrong per se, can only function for relatively small, local journals. If we think of large publishers, such a system would be dangerous, and would definitely not subvert the status quo: big brands, with their powerful and multidirectional structure, could easily infiltrate any public consortium or institution.
That said, Aguzzi foresees a promising future for the scientific publishing system. In a 2015 opinion piece published in his journal “Swiss Medical Weekly”, he envisages an “informal, low-threshold system of discussion and dialogue in which any paper will be commented upon by peers similarly to how social media such as Facebook function”.
I foresee a similar future, but journals and publishers should not be part of this process.
“A mechanism must be restored to align the financial interests of publishers with the research enterprise’s need for high quality publications”, he concludes in his recent editorial in Nature.
But why should we align the interests of private businesses with those of the scientific community and of its unaware public taxpayers? These publishers have interests in making large profits, not necessarily in advancing our knowledge and progressing our society.
Aguzzi’s proposal is not one that challenges the power of the big players. His model would bother the journals just enough to slightly readapt their strategy. Yet, they would remain the uncontested leaders within the scientific publishing system.
My proposed solution is one that completely revolutionizes the way science is communicated, by erasing journals in toto, and ideally by establishing one publicly funded platform containing our planetary scientific knowledge. Taking Aguzzi’s vision into consideration, this platform should be a dynamic social network in which scientists publicly communicate and discuss their science, experiment-by-experiment, under the attentive eye of international experts. This idea will be further elaborated in a detailed forthcoming article.