Imagine that taxes are collected from the public by the government, then the government uses some of that money to fund scientific research. Then imagine that after the scientific research is carried out, the scientists write up their results and submit their manuscript to a journal for peer review. The publisher of that journal selects the reviewers (who are not paid for these services). Soon after, the publisher hears back from the reviewers, forwards their comments to the papers’ authors and after some adjustments, publishes this paper.
This paper is then not available to the public, who has funded the research, and not even necessarily available to the government, unless the government agency has a subscription to the journal. In fact, the authors themselves are barred for a period of time from sharing their own work online. The work is owned by a third-party, the publisher.
Though this may seem absurd and overly-simplistic, this is not too much unlike how the current system of publishing in scientific journals actually works. I have argued previously, in Data and Plots for the Public, that it is important for the public to have access to data, plots and articles. It is also necessary for science journalists to be able to reprint these plots for articles that are more accessible to the public.
I am not alone in this point of view as it seems like open-access journals are becoming more popular in many fields, as reported recently in The Guardian. However, I do see a problem occurring with many of the current open-access journal models. These journals work by charging authors a fee for publication. It is easy for this model to become corrupted, as the more a journal publishes, the higher its revenue. Therefore, scientific quality will easily fade when faced with higher potential profits.
One way to rectify this situation is by charging the authors a fee for peer-review even if the paper may not be published. This method also has its drawbacks, however, as it may end up preventing some authors from submitting results to a journal altogether for fear of rejection.
There are a few ideas on how to solve these problems, but I think one thing is clear: the current model is unsustainable, unfair to the public and opposes scientific principles of openness. One wonders if public opinion would have been swayed sooner on the topics of climate change or nicotine addiction had the public been given access to the data and plots from scientific journals rather than having to intuit such information from secondary and tertiary sources. The current model of scientific publication is in need of reform.