Aaron Swartz was a genius and a hero. The prosecution that presumably contributed to his death was an appalling act of overkill, particularly in contrast to the failure to prosecute financial sector crooks. But that doesn’t mean he was always right.
Scientific Peer Review is one of the most important pillars on which our society is based. It’s the difference between going to the doctor and getting medicine that will probably make you better and receiving very expensive lolly water. It’s the difference between having the forewarning that could save us from the fate of many civilisations that messed too much with their local ecosystems and sticking your finger in the air and saying “climate change is bullshit because it’s cold today”.
And peer review doesn’t come cheap. The current mechanism we utilise for operating peer review is not a good one. It involves pretty substantial profits for publishing companies, works good scientists to the bone, and still publishes plenty of rubbish. Still I’m not convinced it is the worst possible scenario, or that breaking it would ensure something better rises in its place.
The idea of open access publications is certainly appealing. As a science journalist I usually can’t access the papers I’m writing about unless the authors email me a copy. That’s not always a problem. Often the papers are so full of jargon I don’t learn much when I do read them, and its almost always the case that interviewing the scientist is more productive. For other researchers in the field however, the situation would be different. With the vast majority of this research being publicly funded there is clearly something wrong with the idea that the public that paid for it can’t access it without paying extraordinary costs to Elsevier and their smaller competitors.
As I understand it Swartz was driven by the quest to take this information out from behind the paywalls and release it to the general public. He may not have expected the ferocity of the legal attack he received as a result, but he knew there were likely to be consequences and did it anyway for what he perceived as the public good. So definitely a hero. I’m in no position to judge whether his actions were even illegal, but at worst they were minor crimes that did not deserve anything like what was thrown at him.
However, it is worth considering the consequences of him succeeding in his larger goals. Publishing no longer requires expensive printing presses, but if there is to be quality control it still requires editors, who need to be paid if they are to devote serious time to it. If not from those who want to access the material, where is this money to come from?
Ideally I’d like to see it come from the government. Compared to the cost of actually doing the research, the cost of publishing is pretty small, so this is certainly affordable. But that does not mean it would be afforded. Go tell the US Republicans, Tony Abbott, or even Wayne Swan that they should suddenly stump up millions (or in the US case tens of millions) of new money to take over the world’s most credible journals, or found new ones. Moreover, I think quite a few people might have concerns about putting government funded bodies so directly in charge of what gets published.
Philanthropy is another possibility, but so far the funding stream for open access journals is not enough to publish more than a tiny fraction of the research conducted each year.
Some open access journals work by having the author pay. There are circumstances where this succeeds. David Lindenmayer thought his paper on landscape traps (discussed here) was so important to public discussion he paid for it to be open access out of his own pocket. In general however, this strikes me as an even worse approach than having the reader pay. Only rich scientists get to publish? The richer you are the more prestigious journal you can publish in? Not good.
Moreover, I think the need for funding is going to grow. I wrote a feature last year for Australasian Science on bad papers getting through peer review. No one seems to have found a way to measure it, but it seems that reviewers are increasingly overworked and this may be letting more seriously wrong papers get published because the reviewer just doesn’t have the time to notice the issues. There is a fair chance that soon we are going to have to start paying reviewers as well as editors if we want to maintain standards. If not through readers, where will this money come from?
The journals are aware of these issues. Some have experimented with an open review process, where draft versions are placed online for people to critique. Some scientists were reluctant to take part for fear of their work being stolen, but the biggest problem was that, while lots of people thought it was a good idea, few were willing to spend the time going through draft papers carefully to find errors. Hardly surprising – they have their own work to do.
So let me be clear, I’m very aware of the current problems with peer review, of which the cost of access is one. But I’m also pretty wary of upending the single most important barrier between us and a new dark age (a very hot dark age) without being sure we not only know how we want to replace it, but that such a replacement will occur.