Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral

Michael Eisen linked the captioned Guardian article by Open Access activist Dr. Mike Taylor. This is a target-rich environment for Taylor and Eisen. I highly recommend you just dive into Mike’s essay, which begins with a conversion confession:

Publishing science behind paywalls is immoral. There, I said it.

I know, I know. It’s an easy trap to fall into – I’ve done it myself. To my shame, several of my own early papers, and even a recent one, are behind paywalls. I’m not speaking as a righteous man to sinners, but as a sinner who has repented.

Having started my scientific life from rather a conventional stance, it took me a while to come around to this position. (You can watch my position evolve, if you care to, through this chronological series of blogposts: “Choosing a journal”, “Free work”, “Collateral damage”, “Private-sector”, “RCUK submission”, “Irritation”, “Versus everybody” and “Making public”.) But I’ve finally arrived. And it’s great that the UK government has arrived in the same place.

If you are a scientist, your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. And if you bring new knowledge into the world, it’s immoral to hide it. I heartily wish I’d never done it, and I won’t do it again.

But aren’t there special cases?

I really need to publish in Science/Nature/Cell for my career …

No. Michael Eisen, cofounder of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), doesn’t believe this is true and makes a strong case that we’re confusing correlation with causation. He notes that fewer than half of biology hires at Berkeley in the last decade have published in Science, Nature or Cell. Berkeley!

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But I can’t afford article processing charges (APCs) …

No. First of all, more than half of open-access journals don’t charge a fee at all. Among those that do, the average fee is $906 (£563) – a tiny proportion of most research grants. PeerJ, which launches this month, charges a one-off fee of $299 for a lifetime’s publications. Most fee-charging open-access journals offer waivers – for example, the no-questions-asked waiver at PLOS, where the philosophy is explicitly that no one should be prevented from publishing by lack of funds.

Tim Gowers, who is leading a boycott against the publisher Elsevier and is starting the new Forum of Mathematics journal says it “will not under any circumstances expect authors to meet APCs out of their own pockets, and I would refuse to be an editor if it did”.

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Great article, great comments, so many substantive comments that Mike followed up with this post.