The current pandemic will eventually end, leaving us more free to ponder what to keep from all the changes it has wrought. One obvious candidate is open-access scientific journals.
Most relevant scientific advances on the COVID-19 front have been put online in open-access form and then debated online. Even if they later came out in refereed journals, their real impact came during their early open-access days.
Open-access publishing has obvious advantages. The articles are free, the whole world can read them, and the interplay of ideas they generate is easier to track. As scientific contributions come from a greater number of different countries, including many poorer countries, these factors will be increasingly important. I work at a major U.S. research university, but even so I am frequently unable to gain access to desired academic publications.
To make a new open-access system work would require a number of pieces to fall into place. There is such a path.
The Indian government has a proposal, called the “One Nation, One Subscription” plan, to buy bulk subscriptions of the world’s most important scientific journals and provide them free to everyone in India. Given the porousness of the internet, and the widespread availability of VPN services, general worldwide access is likely to result. Sci-Hub, based in Russia, already offers open access to many scientific publications.
But why stop there? Rather than just reproducing published articles, the publication process could be opened up altogether. If this Indian initiative happens, or if pirated copies become more common, academic journal publishing could become less profitable. Perhaps the gated publication sources will prove unable to sustain themselves financially, especially as the budgets of universities libraries continue to tighten.
The biggest problem for an open-access regime is how to ensure good refereeing, which if done correctly raises the quality of academic papers. Under the current system, editors decide which papers get refereed, and they choose the identities of the referees. Those same referees are underpaid and underincentivized, and often do a poor or indifferent job.
Many of the original papers on mRNA vaccines, for example, were rejected numerous times by academic journals, hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo. More generally, since publication is currently a yes/no decision, the refereeing system creates incentives to avoid criticism and play it safe, rather than to strike out with bold new ideas and risk rejection.
Under my alternative vision, research scientists would be told to publish one-third less and devote the extra time to volunteer refereeing of what they consider to be the most important online postings. That refereeing, which would not be anonymous, would be considered as a significant part of their research contribution for tenure and promotion. Professional associations, foundations and universities could set up prizes for the top referees, who might be able to get tenure just by being great at adding value to other people’s work. If the lack of anonymity bothers you, keep in mind that book reviews are already a key determinant for tenure in many fields, such as the humanities, and they are not typically anonymous.
Secondary institutions would spotlight the most interesting papers and reviews, and they would aggregate that information into more digestible form — just as Google Scholar helps to track citations. With open-access publishing, it also would be easier to revise papers to incorporate new data or an author’s change in opinion. Overall, more collective effort would be put into improving, revising and interpreting the most important results.
Under the current system in my own profession — economics — a large percentage of the top 50 schools will not consider candidates for tenure unless they have some publications in the top three or four journals. Is that such a good system for encouraging innovation and nonconformism?
Critics might argue that under this system more false results would circulate. But keep in mind that this new arrangement would devote much more effort and attention to high-quality, open-access refereeing. Furthermore, the status quo is not ideal. It is very hard to find reliable information about how good any given article is, even in a top journal. In reality, many of these results are false, nonreplicable or simply irrelevant for real-world problems. People outside the academic process do not have much faith in what is being certified.
The changes the pandemic has forced in academic publishing aren’t all bad. At the very least, they have revealed that there are almost certainly better ways to evaluate and publish scientific research.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include ‘Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.’
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