Is it immoral to hide your research behind a paywall?

Mike Taylor’s followup post, which has also attracted lots of excellent comments. Here’s a sample

As noted a few days ago, I recently had an article published on the Guardian site entitled Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. The reaction to that article was fascinating, exhilarating and distressing in fairly equal parts. Fascinating because it generated a fertile stream of 156 comments, most of them substantial. Exhilarating because of some very positive responses. And distressing because some people who I like and respect absolutely hated it.

Those people’s main objections were nicely summed up by a response piece by Chris Chambers, published a few days later on the same site: Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. It’s a good, measured article, and I highly recommend it — not least because it’s apparent that while Chris thinks my tactics are all off, he makes it clear that he shares the goal of universal open access and further significant reform in scholarly communications.

So I’d like to clarify a couple of points that I didn’t make clearly enough in the original articles (but which I addressed in two separate comments on Chris’s article); and then I want to throw the floor open to see if we can hack through the more difficult issues that it raises.

A clarification

Chris wrote:

Do scientists who follow accepted publishing practices deserve to be labelled ‘immoral’, as Taylor claims?

The intention of my original article was not to say that the individuals who allow their work to go behind paywalls are immoral people, but that the act it itself immoral. If that feels like a fine distinction, it’s not. For a variety of pragmatic reasons, essentially moral people commit immortal acts all the time. At the trivial end of the scale, something as insignificant as not bothering to sort the recycling; at the other end, while no-one would claim dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations is an essentially moral act, many people would accept that in the context of WWII, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were justified or even necessary. (And please: no-one cite this as ‘Mike says publishing behind a paywall is exactly like nuking civilians’!)

So my goal in the original piece was not to castigate individuals as immoral people, but to push us all into deliberately thinking through the moral implications of our publication choices — decisions that all too many scientists still make without thought for the accessibility or otherwise of their work. I stand by my original assertion that it’s immoral to accept public funding to do research, then hide the fruits of that research from the public that paid for it. But that doesn’t mean that I am ‘labelling’ anyone. My apologies if that distinction wasn’t clear.

To summarise the intent of my article: the decision of where to publish is a moral one. Please, all you moral people out there, make a moral choice.

The curse of  journal prestige

And so we come to the vexed subject of journal rank. First of all, it’s encouraging to see that most people seem to agree at least that the effects of journal rank are A Bad Thing — that judging scientists by what journals they have published in is at best corner cutting, if not outright dereliction. This is not controversial any more, if it ever was: the ridiculous experience of PLOS Medicine as they  negotiated (yes, negotiated) their initial impact factor tells you all you need to know about such metrics.

As Chris wrote in his article:

In many (if not most) fields, the journals in which we publish are judged to be an indicator of professional quality. […] Science is bad at being scientific: the actual quality takes second place to the perception of quality, which is so strong that journal rank creates its own biosphere.

The problem here seem to be one of wrenching an entire community out of a delusion at once. Because the things I hear over and over again are: 1. ‘Of course, I personally would never judge a paper by what journal it’s in, or judge a scientist by what journals her papers are in’. And 2. ‘I need to get my papers in glamourous journals so that people will judge me well’. Everyone is worried about being judged by the very criterion that they insist they would never judge by.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this absurd circle. Well, I do: we should all just stop it. But I don’t have a strategy for reaching that solution. One thing that is infuriating to see is that even when the REF and the Wellcome Trust so very explicitly say ‘We don’t care what journal your work is in’, researchers continue to disbelieve them. I would love to hear constructive thoughts on what can be done about this.

Read the whole thing and the comments, where Michael Eisen closes the circle with this:

Can somebody please call snopes.com? Everybody here is do sure that you have to have a Science, Nature or Cell paper to get a fellowship/job/tenure because “somebody told them so”. So scientific of y’all. How about somebody look at some actual data? I have. I will post more details on my blog when I get a moment, but the basic things I have found are:

1) I looked at new hires in the top 10 biology departments in the US. All had recent assistant professor hires who had not published Science, Nature or Cell papers prior to getting their jobs. A fair number of new hires published their postdoctoral work in OA journals.

2) I looked at recent awardees of several major postdoctoral fellowship programs, and again, while there were certainly many people with SNC papers, in all cases there were exceptions.

3) I looked at two prominent young investigator awards, and, surprise surprise, there were a fair number of awardees without glamour mag publications (including one whose work was published in PLoS ONE).

So let’s cut out the “somebody told me” crap. Whether people said it or not, it’s simply not true. Is there a correlation between getting jobs and fellowships and SNC publications? Yes. Of course. Because, first of all, everybody believes it’s essential and works hard to get their papers there. And the same basic criteria for cutting edge science are used by the editors of these journals as are used in hiring/fellowship decisions. So there would be a correlation even if there were no causal relationship.

Do I think it helps to have glamour mag publications if all else is equal? Yes. It probably does a little.