Scott Carter | Essays

Open access

Written September 3, 2009
Laurent and I recently published an article (SeeReader: An (Almost) Eyes-Free Mobile Rich Document Viewer) in the special issue on Pervasive Computing in the International Journal of Computer Science Issues (IJCSI). The IJCSI is open-access, meaning that the content is not hidden behind a paywall. Open-access journals are still seen as dubious by many, and perhaps rightly so. These journals are universally new and tend to enjoy less prestige and quality than mainstream journals. In return, though, they offer fast turn-around times and wide indexing.

Mike Taylor provides a good overview of the tradeoffs between publishing in traditional journals versus open-access journals, albeit in a different domain. In it, he writes:
There are (at least) two reasons to favour open-access journals: the pragmatic one is that it's the best way to make sure that anyone, anywhere in the world who's interested in your work can get it — whether professor, curator, student, interested amateur or vaguely interested high-school kid. The other reason is that it's just right. We're talking here about the world's accumulated knowledge, in many cases acquired by publicly funded research programs. It is simply and plainly wrong that this work should be shut up behind paywalls where the people who paid for it can't see it.
One issue that seems to make detractors queasy is registration fees. But of course publishing, even primarily online, has some cost, and if the papers are being given away for free then the publisher must be recouped in some other way. As this article points out, paper fees are a common approach.

Another argument against open-access is that, if you're interested primarily in dissemination, why not simply post the paper to a blog? My take is that there are really two bars that a paper needs to cross to be published in a traditional journal or conference. The first bar is simply whether or not the work seems reasonable. That is, does it appear to make some type of contribution, is it well argued, and does it spark at least some interest? The second bar is whether the work is framed correctly for a particular conference or journal and whether it builds significantly on other work in the particular sub-fields important to the publication. My sense is that in most cases roughly half of the submitted papers pass the first test and about a quarter pass both. But now that sharing, annotation, and commentary are ubiquitous on the Internet, it is not clear to me how important that second bar is. Why not, after a sanity check (the first bar), release your publication to social review? This might even encourage cross-polination of sub-fields that are all too often sequestered.

That said, I would not advise anyone to move (yet) to an all-open access approach. I think it is important to show that you are capable of publishing in any type of venue, and that open-access is a choice, not an act of desperation. I think they are especially useful for fields that are moving fast. There is usually less than two months from submit to publish for open access journals, which includes 2 reviews, feedback, and one revision, often with immediate publishing to the web and follow-up in print. This beats the pants off of most journals and even conferences. For a field (like, currently, mobile technologies) near the inflection point of the S-curve, I believe it makes sense to push some ideas to open-access journals, especially, if as was the case in our paper, they are specific applications and not general models.

It is also important to note that there are hybrid models supported by many traditional publishers (including Elsevier and Springer). In those cases, authors can choose to pay to have their paper made available publicly. However, this only solves one part of the problem — access — and does not address speed.

Other projects go further, cutting out the paper altogether and exposing instead raw scientific workflows (it will be particularly interesting to follow the impact this has on the social construction of knowledge). In general, like other publishing industries, as more people gain confidence in the Web as a publishing medium, academic publishing will have to change.