There is news of a Campaign to break the stranglehold of academic journals in order to allow all papers to be shared online. A Cambridge Univeristy Don (Timothy Gowers-a mathematician) started the “academic Spring- for its potential of revolutionising the spread of knowledge (surely one can just write to the author of a manuscript to get a reprint anyway..so how much of a revolution is that?) and suggested that we should no longer be submitting manuscripts or reviewing articles or doing other work for subscription –based publishing houses that made costs for libraries so high, in favour of use of open access journals. Thousands of researchers have signed up to a boycott of journals that restrict free sharing. The Wellcome Trust (The largest, non-government funder of research in the UK) has entered the fray and can force the academics it funds to publish open online journals and plans to set up its own ejournal (Elife) to take on the Big Boys of academic publishing to champion Open Access publishing
Historically, the manuscript would be typed, the figures would be hand drawn and photographed to make glossy figures. This would be sent to the Editor of the scientific journal, selected for the Field of Research covered. This would take a few weeks to arrive at the Journal by snail-mail. The manuscript would be sent out by snail-mail to the peer-reviewers, maybe to two to four different ones. The peer reviewers would be given a few weeks to a month to review the manuscript. The manuscript would be (or should I say should be, but not always) critically and constructively appraised for relevance, accuracy, scientific approach, content etc., etc. This would be sent back to the Editor, who would request amendments to be made to respond to the peer-referees comments. This would be sent back and maybe back again to the peer-reviewers, until they are happy that the manuscript was in an acceptable format to be published. This is then sent to the publishers for type setting and the manuscript was published in the journal. These like any newspaper or magazines were purchased through either personal subscription or via the University Library, who paid more for the pleasure of having the journal because more people would read the article, which is protected by Copyright If this was copied, the publisher would expect to get a fee for this. Whilst many journals made their money by selling the journals, some of the more prestigious journals would charge the scientist money to have the work published , so it became an advertisement, and they would be charged by the number of published words or printed pages and colour photographs. Why pay to get the work in these journals, well this was done because the scientists were being judged by the perceived quality of the journal, which was assessed by the Impact Factor, in which they published. Therefore, the money that the University receives for its scientists is based on the publications in high impact factor journals, such as Nature and Science.
Now we are in the age of the Internet, computers, publishing software and the publishing process has been revolutionised. Now with the advent online and access to journals, the scientist does not have to move from their desk or spend hours in the library. The printed word is becoming a thing of the past and there is limited merit in publishing paper journals that invariably end up in the recycle bin. However, the publishing houses, often still work via a subscription and if your university does not subscribe to the journal you cannot get access to this. Hence we had the development of open access journals. These are typically only ejournals and do not appear in printed format and are free for everybody to download and read. The review process is speeded up by email and the publishing costs are substantially reduced.
As academics we applaud the idea of open access and can commend The Wellcome Trust for their stance in supporting this process. However, it perhaps should be mentioned that the Wellcome Trust has changed the way it funds science. It has largely stopped funding idea-based projects and the vast majority of British Science and is placing its trust in Big science and a few People (with excellent past track records it should be said..but not really MS research) with massive grants, to the detriment of majority of the academic world in the UK. They have spent years building buildings, shame that are not funding people to work in them. However, it is their money so that can spend it how they like, but as the economy contracts this move is perhaps not well timed.
However, being a wealthy Charity it can also afford to pay to have this happen. Even print journals will make articles "open access" if you pay the correct fee, so they can have their wish. It just costs money and this is not going to change if is a subscription journal or an online journal. They all have costs in production and this needs to be paid for somehow, whether this is charged to the grant as a publishing cost.
There is a large and every increasing number of Epublishers (often in the Far East where labour costs may not be as high as in Europe or USA) that have set themselves up as Open access journals, but charging the authors thousands of Dollars for the pleasure. There is limited quality control and with no Impact Factor or appearance on Web of Science or Pubmed are viewed as being of limited value in assessment of Research Output by the Universities, in response to UK Government wishes. Therefore to think that Life Scientists, whose employment future depend on publishing in quality journals, will abandon the likes of Nature and Science in favour of open access rags of negligable impact, in the near future, is perhaps myopic. Printed journals and ejournals are both businesses which are out to make money to produce a product and pay their staff.
As we have been mentioning on the blog, British Medical Research is going through a period of contraction, which a Mathematician is unlikely to be feeling. The mathematician can probably fuel their research by brain power and not the thousands and millions of pounds required for Biomedical research. The mathematician may have a minimal research output and based on impact factor of mathematical journals, their publication output will not feature above the lowest of the low of most Biomedical journals. Research in British Universities, rightly or wrongly, is being accessed by outputs into Journals with High Impact Factors. These are invariably long-established journals with high reputation and are largely from publishing houses that have printed Journals. If you are going to be made redundant if you do not publish in these type of journals, then publishing in this E medium is not going to happen. The Government is creating a double standard by wanting quality publication in quality journals and also wanting open access whose journals currently lack the standing of existing journals.
As to stopping reviewing articles, well that is down to the individual on how they want to spend many few hours of unpaid work for each article they do. Stop peer review and the publication process has a radically different machinery.