A shadow grows in Academia


Hi there, and how are you?  Do you remember me?  I occasionally blog here.

Recently the usually serene (ha!) world of academia has been set alight by the tumultuous uproar of what has become known as the ‘Academic Spring’.  Many, including myself, have long been thwarted in attempts to get access to research online by paywalls and the dreaded ‘access to this article is restricted’ sign.  This had been left as ‘part of the system’, not the best part, but the just way it worked.  However, change is afoot, and growing in popularity, support and power.  For today, here’s some history.

Since a very long time ago, the only way to tell people about what you had found out in your philosophical deliberations was to write about it.  Aristotle and Pliny wrote reams of material about anything that passed their mind.  In the mid-Seventeenth Century, the first scientific journals appeared, such as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which are a great way to spread your research in small steps, without having to write about everything all in one.  This has stuck with us until the present day, because it works: you do some research, writes it up and send it to a journal.  The editor sends it a few other scientists to check the science has been done properly — this is peer review, the cornerstone of modern science dissemination — and asks the author for changes and clarifications etc.  Once everyone’s accepted this, the article is published and the world can see what you’ve done.

Except, as it is, not everyone can see your work.  The majority of journals are published by only a few large publishing groups, e.g. Elsevier and Springer.  To be able to find a journal and download an article you must have access — either through a library, personal subscription or by paying there and then — which can cost anywhere from £10 (e.g. Palaeontology individual student subscription) through to £20 000 (e.g. Nature institutional subscription) and beyond.  You might expect this, considering all the services mentioned above that the journal provides — editing, review, formatting, dissemination… but, for many purely academic journals, these are done free of charge by the editors, willing scientists (peer review) and by the author (much of the formatting).

So what do the publishers offer?  Well, they do make print copies and send them to subscribers — but most people now use computers and the internet for research, downloading in .pdf format.  Each journal will have a website managed by their respective publishers, which costs — but I can set up a website, as I have done with this blog, for free.  I could upload articles I’ve written (there’s a free 1 GB upload limit on WordPress), so that they are available to the world — peer review could be requested by me sending manuscripts to experts in the field; whether they’ll be interested in doing this will depend upon time and commitments.  On journal websites, you know your work will be found — but with the joy of Google, and its constant indexing of websites, so is this blog: it was hit №32, when I searched for ‘ichthyosaurs’ and top hit if I search for a specific post title (e.g. ‘who’s useless at writing a blog?’; which is how I often search for papers).  Searching Google for ‘new ophthalmosaurid ichthyosaurs’ brings up this paper (the one I wanted) at the top.

In summary, it is not difficult for me to do much the same as an established journal here, sitting at my computer in the University of Bristol.  It may not have the same prestige as publishing in Nature or Science.  The main problem I can see is that the reference to an article posted on a blog may not be as desirable as one in a journal, even though it may have gone through the same level of criticism.  It could also take up a bit of my time, leaving less for sleeping.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to pay for access publishing: OPEN ACCESS, which will be the subject of another post soon.

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