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Debate Tonight!

10 September 2013

Right now is a good time to be joining the Open Access debate, for me. I currently have four papers under review. I suspect that that’s not many for the average assistant professor, but it’s the most I’ve ever had at one time. [ed.- Informed this is a “humblebrag”. Apologies.] Exactly zero of them are being reviewed by open access journals. Now, I’m on the record as supporting the fundamental ideals behind the open access concept (despite some reservations), and I’ve published open access before, more than once. So what’s my deal?

Well, two things. First, no money. MECMC is a huge and very wealthy institution. One of the richest hospitals on earth, I think. But my department is not a traditionally academic department, and has never published before. They are somewhat skeptical of the entire concept, though they’re coming around fast. If I were to tell them that not only am I going to spend some of my time that they’re paying me to do quality improvement work writing papers, and also they need to pay $1000-$5000 per paper to publish them? They’d simply refuse. They’re not paying for it. If Open Access were the only model, my work would go unpublished.

Probably. There are a few OA journals which waive fees for financial distress, but frankly, MECMC doesn’t deserve any such dispensation. I’d feel bad taking it from some other researcher slogging away in a truly impecunious environment. But they cannot waive fees forever, or the model will fall apart. And in my experience, the OA journals that waive fees tend also to be the ones which are non-exclusive. Which leads me to my other point.

Personal prestige. I want my work to be recognized as good work and valuable. As I wrote in the previous post, for good or ill, journal reputation is one of the primary proxy indicators that people use to judge your work. If I get published in JAMA, or NEJM, or PNAS, or The Lancet, people take notice. Now, it would be lovely if we lived in a world where all of our science were easily and widely distributed and the right people knew how good it was. But that’s simply not the case. If I ever do decide to apply again for a professorship, and I have a paper in one of those journals, it increases exponentially the likelihood that I get offered an interview. If I have a paper in one of those journals, and I submit for a grant here at MECMC, it tells reviewers that I know how to turn research projects into important published research.

Now, we can argue until we’re blue in the face that that shouldn’t be how it is. But that is how it is. And I’m not interested in being the martyr who sacrifices my academic ambitions on the altar of someone else’s utopian vision of universal access.

And I’m not ashamed of wanting a little personal prestige. I think I do interesting work, and I want to be recognized for it. I’m fond of saying that I’m going to make a career out of small papers in small journals. And so far that’s been true. I don’t have a lot of publications, and only a couple in journals anyone would consider of reasonable quality. So far, I am essentially uncited. I have had virtually no impact on the state of my field (which in many ways is in shambles from unqualified physicians trying to play engineer). A paper in a major journal would change the profile of my other work as well.

OA advocates like Michael Eisen see that as a moral failing. But I do not believe that anyone needs to apologize for ambition. The Open Access zealots (and not all supporters are zealots!) are simply the new flavor of shamers. People who believe the “the science is the only thing that matters” and that we should all have a monastic devotion to truth. This is the same attitude that demands that we work 80 hours a week and put off having children and never take vacations, because the science is the only thing that matters, and if you were a True Scientist you’d sacrifice everything!

Bullshit. Our lives and livelihoods matter. And here’s what the zealots don’t seem to understand: some of us are motivated by different things than they are, and it’s ok that we are. I do my best work when I am being paid well, sleeping enough, and feel like I have the chance to be recognized for it. I don’t have to be ashamed of that. This is simply not a moral issue. I am allowed to have my own set of motivations. My own aspirations. It is not a moral failing that I refuse to adopt your political agenda.

And that’s a fundamental issue here for me. Despite the generally admirable goals of the Open Access advocates, I am nauseated by the zealotry, and the conflation of a political agenda with a moral crusade. Eisen et al consider their vision of science dissemination to be noble and righteous to the exclusion of any other path. It is a religious position, and a political one (and in many arenas, there is no discernible difference between political positions and religious ones; they’re all based on faith in an unknowable outcome).

Once a person finds themselves staking out a position where they must assert that all those who agree with them are nobler than all those who do not, they have claimed indefensible ground.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 September 2013 07:56

    First off, four papers under review is amazing for anybody!!! Nice work!! Your piece describes perhaps an emerging consensus on OA — a desire for both systems to remain. It’ll be interesting to see if the desire to kill for-profit publishers gets tempered by democracy. Maybe OA would have gotten as far as it has without the revolutionary zeal. But most of us (?) want a hybrid publishing ecosystem.

  2. 10 September 2013 10:33

    Today is interesting in the UK with the ongoing debate… following the Finch Report the govt immediately endorsed that and the funding councils have responded with a push for adopting the Gold Open Access route.

    However a BIS Select Committee has now reviewed this and has challenged the approach openly.

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