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Will Open-Access Publishing Break the Darwinist Stranglehold?

Open access is coming and it has science journal editors nervously examining the tips of their shoes. It's going to change the way scientists publish their findings. Individuals won't have to pay hundreds of dollars to subscribe to high-impact print journals, like Nature and Science, because the information will be available instantly online. Peer review won't have to precede publication; colleagues can rate papers after publication.

Many things are changing. How will the publishing revolution affect the scientific debate over intelligent design?

Nature has a special series about open access in its March 27 issue. The editors seem desperate to promote whatever "added value" their print editions provide, such as filtering of papers, news briefs, editorials, and commentaries. These add-ons appear superfluous, though, since the essence of scientific publishing is supposed to be peer review and dissemination. In the Internet age, it doesn't take a print journal to do that. Communities of scientists can perform peer review interactively. Meanwhile, new algorithms are allowing papers to be filtered, rated and disseminated in real time.

Open access also has a moral imperative behind it. Advocates argue that findings of publicly funded research should be publicly available. Why should a private company own information that taxpayers paid for? Why should a government agency keep scientific discoveries behind a paywall? Since scientists do peer review for free, why should the journal make all the money? The profit margin for some high-impact journals is well above 30%, sometimes 40-50%.

Several open-access online journals already are succeeding and growing. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) has a series of online journals for various fields. Their business model is to have the author or funder pay up front for peer review and publishing; these costs are typically lower than established journal fees, since there isn't the overhead of printing. BioMed Central promotes itself as "the open-access publisher." As of 2011, according to Richard Van Noorden in Nature, 11% of papers were open access; the number has been growing steadily.

Open access publishing already has a track record. For over a decade, physicists have routinely published their papers on Cornell's arXiv server, where peer review occurs after publication. Even established journals, like PNAS, are including selected online papers for open access. Others open all of their papers to free Internet use after a period of time, like a month or a year.

As with any revolution, there are new challenges. Issues of copyright, licensing, and priority are still being worked out. (John Wilbanks discusses some of these in another article in Nature). The State Department will still need to regulate dual-use findings that have potential military applications. In addition, the plethora of open-access outlets might leave researchers bewildered by options. Fly-by-night operations might attract researchers to publish at lower cost, but with lower standards of review or visibility, leaving researchers feeling disgruntled or duped. (Declan Butler writes about that in the Nature series). Researchers in some highly competitive fields, like biomedicine, fear being scooped if their findings are revealed to rivals.

The relaxed selectivity of some open-access journals may, furthermore, reduce the quality of research. Nature publishes only 8% of submitted papers, but PLoS ONE publishes 70%. Selectivity, though, is a two-edged sword. It can indicate high standards for published claims, but it can also indicate bias. Van Noorden writes,

And to [Michael] Eisen, the idea that research is filtered into branded journals before it is published is not a feature but a bug: a wasteful hangover from the days of print. Rather than guiding articles into journal 'buckets', he suggests, they could be filtered after publication using metrics such as downloads and citations, which focus not on the antiquated journal, but on the article itself.... (Emphasis added.)
In another opinion piece in Nature, Matthew Cockerill favors erring on the side of inclusiveness when it comes to allowing online papers to be indexed and searched:
Imagine a world in which Google demands that websites prove their worth for several years before their pages become searchable. In essence, that is the model that is currently in place for scientific publishing....

'Predatory publishers' -- those offering journals of low quality -- are undoubtedly a concern... But endlessly raising the walls of the citadel, or making those walls scalable only by journals with friends in high places, is not the answer: it slows scientific progress.

Instead, indexing services should err on the side of including content from any new journal that meets basic standards, perhaps flagging it with a 'provisional' tag, but ensuring that it is discoverable and citable.

As for peer review, that's a recent invention that sounds good in theory but often fails in practice, as Casey Luskin has explained here, here, and here. Historically, many of the greatest works of science, from luminaries such as Newton, Boyle, and Maxwell, were published without peer review.

Advocates of ID know from experience that they don't stand much chance of getting past the Darwin-enforcing censors at many high-impact print journals, even to respond to letters that criticize their ideas. As editorial censorship is dismantled in favor of community ratings, good ideas should be able to reach the open marketplace without prior restraint. A majority in the scientific community may still criticize an ID paper, but at least colleagues will get to see it. A growing minority of the convinced may actually speak up for it. That's how paradigm-changing ideas can gain traction.

The future of print journals looks bleak. With its demise will go -- potentially -- the editors' stranglehold on what material is allowed to be published. Describing the "transformation taking place in scientific publishing," Nature's editors write, "Science itself is changing rapidly; the means by which it is shared must keep up." Whether open access brings ID into long-closed scientific arenas, or shuts it out by means of new contrivances, remains to be seen. Intuitively, however, it appears that openness will be a good thing.