The Many Benefits of OA and Open Peer Review: C-EBLIP Journal Club, May 10, 2016

by DeDe Dawson
Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

Tennant JP, Waldner F, Jacques DC et al. The academic, economic and societal impacts of Open Access: an evidence-based review [version 1; referees: 4 approved, 1 approved with reservations]. F1000Research 2016, 5:632 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.8460.1)

This is arguably the perfect journal club article! A juicy topic with a few points of contention, a journal platform with many innovative features, and open post-publication peer review. Lots and lots to discuss, and indeed we ran out of time. Here I try to summarize our conversation:

I always gravitate towards review articles and highly recommend them to students. They are often the most efficient way to get up to speed on all the relevant literature in a complex area. Open Access (OA) is just such a complex area with multiple overlapping layers of issues, and all progressing so rapidly, that it is the ideal topic for a review. It is ironic because OA itself is such a simple concept. The complexity comes from the challenges of implementation and the multiple stakeholders (and vested interests) involved.

This review article summarizes the main evidence to date on the impact of OA from three perspectives: academic, economic, and societal. They are essentially three lines of reasoning in support of OA. We thought that the strongest, most well-developed argument in favour of OA in this article was the academic. It certainly had the most citations behind it because of the highly productive research area documenting the OA citation effect. We also thought that maybe this academic perspective was focused on by the authors because it was the most likely to persuade researchers who might be reading this review.

So, was the point of the article to persuade researchers to support OA? The authors have an obvious bias as proponents of OA. But how important is it for authors to be neutral? We thought it was unrealistic to expect authors not to have a bias, and for most kinds of papers authors indeed argue a particular point. But should review papers be different? It was suggested that if authors are clear and upfront about their objectives and competing interests this shouldn’t be a problem.

This brought us to the question of what evidence against OA might there be anyway? (We expose our own pro-OA bias here!). One of the online commenters on the article challenged the authors to provide a more balanced review – but he could not provide the authors with links to literature to support these other anti-OA perspectives. Some of the obvious counter-arguments were already dealt with in the article: such as the rise of deceptive (“predatory”) publishing, and the challenges of paying article processing charges (APCs) for authors without funding or those from underdeveloped countries. Otherwise, it is pretty hard to argue against OA unless you are a commercial publisher (or shareholder) with financial interest in sustaining the current system. The commenter argued that jobs will be lost in the transition. But this is a weak point. Are we to prop up an entire dysfunctional, and inequitable, system for the sake of some jobs? Besides these jobs will likely morph into other more relevant and useful functions. What seemed to emerge from this back-and-forth was that “sustainable” means something completely different to commercial publishers (and their allies) and OA proponents! Publishers are from Mars; OA proponents are from Venus.

Beyond the article itself we had a lot to say about the platform and the open peer review model. The article is essentially still in its pre-print version. It was posted on the F1000Research site before peer review. It was a fascinating process to see the reviewers’ reports as they were submitted, and to watch as others commented on the article and the authors responded. It gave the impression of a proper scholarly conversation taking place. This is ideally what journals should be facilitating. Technology allows this now – so why are so many journals still clinging to outdated formats from the print era?

The “open” nature of the reviews and comments also ensured an appropriate level of civility. Who has not received rude and unproductive comments from a reviewer that feels protected by their anonymity? (There is an entire Tumblr site devoted to such remarks!). However, if the reviewer is obliged to reveal themselves, not just to the authors but to the whole of the readership, then they are more likely to behave diplomatically, and provide constructive and substantiated critiques. This also works in the reviewer’s favour: readers (and evaluators) can plainly see the amount of work and time invested by the reviewer in their function. If the reviewer has spent considerable time in providing a thoughtful review then they can justifiably link to it on their CV and collegial committees can see for themselves the energy the reviewer expended.

We also spoke of how we might use this kind of journal format in information literacy instruction with students. This would more clearly make the point that scholarship is a conversation, and that there are multiple points of view. It would demystify the peer review process too: we can see the issues raised by the reviewers and can follow the paper into its next version seeing how the authors might address these concerns. This process is usually completely hidden from the average reader; so it is difficult for a student to imagine a paper other than the final version.

These various versions of papers do present challenges for the reader in citing though! It seems that all the versions remain on the site and have their own DOIs, but the added complexity in citing remains. This is a relatively minor issue though compared to the benefits of an open scholarly conversation that such a model of peer review allows.

We look forward to seeing the next version of this article and continuing the conversation on the benefits of OA!

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.