This hat tip goes to the Radio Berkman podcast at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society (Harvard University), Episode 206 for August 16, 2012, entitled “Unlocking Research.” In this episode, David Weinberger interviews open access advocate Peter Suber.
Peter Suber is Director of the Harvard Open Access Project and author of a new book on open access called (simply) Open Access (MIT Press, 2012). In this interview, Suber provides a clear and concise portrayal of what open access is all about, and where it is heading. Here’s a particularly interesting segment, where Suber speaks to the challenge of open access while also exposing a couple of key issues that need to be sorted out in this scholarly communications debate:
Weinberger: There are certainly still, let’s say, social and career reasons why at least some researchers like to publish in closed access journals. Is that changing?
Suber: It is changing. The advantage for researchers is not that the closed accessed journals are closed, it’s that some closed access journals are prestigious. So the advantage comes from the prestige not from the lack of openness. When an open access journal is just as prestigious as a closed journal then all the advantages lie on the open side.
But to gain this kind of prestige a journal needs to have been in existence for a long time. It needs to be venerable. It needs to have been around long enough to have a reputation. Open access journals tend to be new, for obvious reasons. So most of the venerable, high prestige journals are not open. Some of them have converted to open. Some of them are now allowing open without providing open. Some of them are permitting authors to provide open. But by default most of them are not open, and the incentives for researchers, especially university faculty members is to publish in high prestige journals regardless of the terms of access.
Weinberger: One of the qualities that gives a journal prestige, though, is not simply that it’s old and venerable, but that it excludes most of what is submitted—that there is some type of editorial process, peer review processing, and very few items get in.
Suber: Right. But open access journals can have rigorous peer review at the very same levels. Having rigorous peer review and having a high rejection rate is orthogonal to openness in this sense. Because it doesn’t mean that a journal must be sold as opposed to given away, it just means that the editorial process has to be selective. The older journals can be more selective. Journals that have more prestige have a better reputation and can be more selective because they have more submissions. The more submissions you have the more you can afford to reject a larger number.
But the same thing can happen on the open access side. As more open access journals become prestigious—as they become selective they become prestigious; as they become prestigious they become selective—then they have the same advantages that the venerable high prestige, high quality closed journals have had. There has never been an advantage of being closed. There’s only been an advantage in being high quality, high impact, high prestige.
There’s a related problem for open access journals, which is that in order to acquire prestige, they must attract high quality submissions. But in order to attract high quality submissions they need prestige. So, brand new journals that have few submissions and no prestige yet—because they’re brand new—have a hard time acquiring prestige and quality. So this is another reason why the incumbent journals have a built-in advantage. Again, not because they’re closed, but because they’ve been around long enough to have both submissions and prestige.
One of the most common and harmful misunderstandings about open access is that the very purpose is to by-pass peer review, and that it’s to make all scholarly literature like Wikipedia, or like blogs. Not at all true. We want open access to the peer reviewed literature. … That’s the focus of most open access policies and most open access advocacy.
The interview is just over 28 minutes long, and is well worth a listen.