Friday, March 31, 2006


When I was looking in my thesaurus for an alternative to the word 'repository', I was given 'sepulchre' and 'tomb'.

Never realised that. Is that why one calls them Repositories of Institutional Publications? What's in a name? Or is there perhaps a subconscious message here? An element of 'nominative determinism'?

Jan Velterop

Monday, March 27, 2006

Of value and money

In a recent missive to all ACS (American Chemical Society) members, the Society’s President, E. Ann Nalley, warned against the dangers of jeopardising the tremendously useful, yet complex, journals-based system of publishing scientific research. In an open letter on her blog, OA activist Heather Morrison reacted to this, extolling the virtues of barrier-free access to the scientific research literature.

One might be forgiven for getting the impression that the two are at odds with one another. They might even think so themselves. However, both are right, in their own ways.

The journals system is tremendously useful. The validation and certification through critical peer-review, the stability it lends to scientific communication by providing a unique citation for each article – thus making it the version of record, the structure journals give to archiving, they all add great value to orderly scientific discourse and to maintaining the integrity of ‘the minutes’ of science. What Nalley fails to address – though it can be read between the lines – is the matter of cost. Nalley fears that if articles published in the ACS journals are made freely available elsewhere, their economic basis is seriously undermined.

Morrison doesn’t refute this. Instead, she is addressing a different point. It is evident that unhindered access to scientific research literature is beneficial for science, and hence for society. Not a word about cost, though. Who is she expecting to pay for it all?

If researchers want to communicate their research results, it is perfectly possible for them to make it all available to anyone in the world for free. All they have to do is post their material on a on a web site or to deposit it in an OA repository. Why don’t they just do that? Why bother a publisher? Or is the publisher perhaps providing them with something that makes their articles more valuable – to them and to science – than they would be if just published unofficially on the web?

That, of course, is the key. Journals (and thus: publishers) make unofficial, grey literature white, so to speak. Golden, even. They organise, operate and maintain a system that results in the ‘attachment’ of a journal ‘label’ to an article, which all of a sudden turns what is hitherto grey into a fully recognised publication, the version-integrity of which is guaranteed, and which is fully embedded in the official literature. That process adds tremendous value. But it carries costs.

Nalley’s letter is prompted by the NIH policies and Congressional draft bills that move towards requiring open access for federally funded research. The anxiety of the ACS and other publishers is justified as long as the NIH and congressional bills do not address the issue of costs associated with the tremendously useful journals system. They should take a leaf out of the Wellcome Trust book, which does address the issue with exemplary clarity. On their web site one can read that "…the Wellcome Trust […] will provide grantholders with additional funding to cover the costs of page processing charges levied by publishers who support the open access model" (my emphasis). The ACS should ask for that kind of commitment and clarity from the NIH, from other federal funding bodies, and from Congress. When open access is economically supported, Nalley and Morrison may find themselves on common ground after all.

Jan Velterop

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What is an OA journal?

"Currently, the ISI Web of Knowledge includes 298 Open Access journals", according to Thomson Scientific. We also have the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), reporting (March 8, 2006) that it includes 2089 OA journals.

What, however, are 'Open Access Journals'? Do they exist? What's the definition? Journals that publish OA articles, or journals that publish only OA articles? Same question with regard to Open Access Publishers.

What does exist is publishers who publish journals in which open access articles appear. Not necessarily all the articles in a journal and not necessarily all the journals in a publisher's portfolio.

Why the distinction? Well, by focussing on exclusively OA journals or OA publishers one risks overlooking - no, one overlooks - all the open access articles that are published in journals that are not exclusively open access. This was already foreseen in the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing, in which the definition of open access carries the following rider: "Open access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers."

There is a fundamental issue here. Thinking in terms of 'journals' can be rather misleading, simply because of their extreme variability. (In the UK one measures one's weight in 'stones'. Stones? Any stones? No, of course not, stones with a defined weight.) It can mislead to notions such as 'OA journals are less/more prestigious than non-OA journals', or 'one is used less/more than the other'. It can mislead to the perceived importance of notions such as 'average price of journals', or even 'journal impact factor'. Journals are 'tags', 'labels', classifying, organising, tools. Lumping them and counting them and averaging them is fine as long as we realise that what we are concocting is a potage that may actually obfuscate rather than elucidate what the situation is regarding the constituent 'molecules' of scientific discourse: the articles.

Jan Velterop