Academics are getting more and more unhappy about the state of scientific publishing in the UK in what is becoming known as the ‘academic spring’. Timothy Gowers wrote in the THE recently about why he – like many academics – is boycotting the publisher everyone seems to resent most: Reed Elsevier. There’s also a campaign going on, to try to force journals to widen their access.
This is quite a complex and sensitive issue, but I have often thought that given the kind of information-rich world we live in, there must be quite simple ways of communicating research results without the publisher middle men. Researchers already post links to their research papers on their academic home pages – perhaps they could just post the whole paper there without ever bothering to give it to Elsevier?
Well, of course, the problem is that this process wouldn’t automatically be subject to peer review, there would be no collection of work in a single location and so on. It would also take a paradigm shift in attitudes of truly heroic proportions for anything like this to be adopted. Gowers says he wants people to ‘set up cheaper alternatives, which takes time and work’ and to ‘think about’ the issue.
As a PhD student hoping to eventually get a job, it would not be appropriate for me to start hurling insults at people like Elsevier. I actually have a better opinion of them than many scientists. I happen to think that academic publishers do care about the problems with the current system, and are trying to make it better. It just takes time, and, really, any change has to originate from the scientific community. A business will never change a profitable mode of operation completely, just out of the goodness of its heart.
So what can a PhD student do to help? I say, to start with, we should begin to make our research findings as freely available as possible. In an effort to promote this sort of thinking, I have made a decision. As I near the end of my PhD I will submit as many as possible of the compounds I made during my research to ChemSpider SyntheticPages, a free repository of synthetic chemistry procedures. If databases like this were used consistently and widely, we might eventually move organically towards a situation where information is much more freely available.
In fact, there are such initiatives springing up across most of the sciences. Physical scientists already have arXiv (although that’s old), for example. And in an unexpected (to me) move, the Wellcome Trust have just announced they will be putting in place sanctions for researchers they fund who refuse to publish in their open access medical journal, eLife.*
So I challenge you – if you are a PhD student – to start making your research data available for free, as far as you reasonably can.
My first chemspider synthetic page is here: DOI 10.1039/SP540
*[Edit, 13.04.2012. I should have said ‘open access journals, including eLife’. They are not forcing people to publish in that particular journal – that would be a bit unreasonable!]