Saturday, December 22, 2007

An important victory for Open Access

It's official: The US Congress has made Open Access (with a 12 month delay) mandatory for researchers funded by the NIH. Washington Post reports:

... [A] provision that would give the public free access to the results of federally funded biomedical research represents a sweet victory for a coalition of researchers and activists who lobbied for the language for years.

Under the bill's terms, scientists getting grant money from the National Institutes of Health would now have to submit to the NIH a final copy of their research papers when those papers are accepted for publication in a journal. An NIH database would then post those papers, free to the public, within 12 months after publication.

The idea is that taxpayers, who have already paid for the research, should not have to subscribe to expensive scientific journals to read about the results.

Hat tip to Aurelie Thiele, who also has an extended commentary on the future of scientific publishing. She makes an important point: journals also serve as a signaling mechanism -- through metrics such as impact factor, citation index, etc.-- that allows non-scientists (in an admittedly imperfect way) to separate noteworthy, important research from pedestrian stuff. This leads her to worry that:

... [W]hile the end of for-profit publishing might not be a bad thing, its end before another quality-assessment is put in place certainly would be.

My first reaction is that this need not become a major concern. Internet has its own (open and democratic) mechanism for reputation formation. PLoS, for example, has a rating mechanism for all its papers; Nature also tried it for sometime (rather unsuccessfully). In social sciences -- where blogging has taken off among the academics in a big way -- blogs too promote important and high quality research. I am sure other, more robust mechanisms will eventually emerge. The only catch is that this will force folks -- who might otherwise want to hide behind their anonymous-reviewer status -- to come out in the open and participate.