Open Access and the Skewness of Science: It Can't Be Cream All the Way Down

From: Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM>
Date: Fri, 10 Oct 2008 05:41:02 -0400

Open Access and the Skewness of Science: It Can't Be Cream All the Way Down

    Young NS, Ioannidis JPA, Al-Ubaydli O (2008) Why Current
Publication Practices May Distort Science. PLoS Medicine Vol. 5, No.
10, e201 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050201
    SUMMARY: "The current system of publication in biomedical research
provides a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are
generated in the laboratory and clinic. This system can be studied by
applying principles from the field of economics. The "winner's curse,"
a more general statement of publication bias, suggests that the small
proportion of results chosen for publication are unrepresentative of
scientists' repeated samplings of the real world. The self-correcting
mechanism in science is retarded by the extreme imbalance between the
abundance of supply (the output of basic science laboratories and
clinical investigations) and the increasingly limited venues for
publication (journals with sufficiently high impact). This system
would be expected intrinsically to lead to the misallocation of
resources. The scarcity of available outlets is artificial, based on
the costs of printing in an electronic age and a belief that
selectivity is equivalent to quality. Science is subject to great
uncertainty: we cannot be confident now which efforts will ultimately
yield worthwhile achievements. However, the current system abdicates
to a small number of intermediates an authoritative prescience to
anticipate a highly unpredictable future. In considering society's
expectations and our own goals as scientists, we believe that there is
a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and

There are reasons to be skeptical about the conclusions of this PLoS
article. It says that science is compromised by insufficient "high
impact" journals to publish in. The truth is that just about
everything gets published somewhere among the planet's25,000 peer
reviewed journals, just not all in the top journals, which are, by
definition, reserved for the top articles -- and not all articles can
be top articles. The triage (peer review) is not perfect, so sometimes
an article will appear lower (or higher) in the journal quality
hierarchy than it ought to. But now that funders and universities are
mandating Open Access, all research, top, middle and low will be
accessible to everyone. This will correct any access inequities and it
will also help remedy quality misassignment (inasmuch as lower quality
journals may have fewer subscribers, and users may be less likely to
consult lower quality journals). But it will not change the fact that
80% of citations (and presumably usage) goes to the top 20% of
articles, though it may flatten this "skewness of science" (Seglen)

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum
Received on Fri Oct 10 2008 - 11:38:38 BST

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