Column Editor: Kent Anderson (Founder, Caldera Publishing Solutions, 290 Turnpike Road, #366, Westborough, MA 01581-2843; Phone: 774-288-9464)
When people say they want to make all research accessible and then posit OA as a solution, all I hear is a passive and producer-oriented approach that’s not going to meet readers where they are.
In my experience, to make research accessible, you have to work a lot harder than that. You have to create awareness. You have to make sure the experience is high-yield for the time-pressed and attention-depleted. And, you have to acknowledge that in many fields, research articles aren’t what a lot of readers value — especially if you’re talking about a field where there are more practitioners than researchers.
I’ve done a lot of market research over the years in professions where most of the members are practitioners, not researchers. This situation is quite common, from computer science to dentistry to surgery to medicine to economics to engineering. Most large fields are flush with practitioners, with an icing of researchers on top.
To researchers and practitioners alike, research articles are generally perceived as one of three things:
1. Too far advanced to matter today.
2. Too specialized to matter to them.
3. Too speculative or tentative to implement with confidence.
These are not mutually exclusive. Some research articles are all three.
Even if these articles were all freely available, uptake would be marginal. Practitioners generally rely on other, more synthesized information outputs to keep them up to speed — things like interpretive pieces that distill research into highly contextual, concise, and high-yield articles. These are the review articles, editorials, guidelines, discussions, and systematic reviews that often fill out the best journals. For some (Science, Nature) news sections entice readers in, and news coverage interprets related research via interviews and down to earth writing.
Plan S and other OA mandates posit that journals will make their money by charging research article authors. Currently, most large OA journals gather money only from the publication of research articles. Either approach leaves major sources of context, knowledge, synthesis, and perspective in the cold. Without subscriptions to incentivize things like engagement, renewals, and sales, new editorial content to appeal to readers seems superfluous. In a Plan S future where subscriptions aren’t allowed, it has no reason to exist.
OA postulates that the research article is the be-all and end-all when it comes to what people want to read. That’s just not true. The OA movement’s implicit editorial position is, I believe, impoverished and misguided. It is not reader-focused, but outputs-focused and producer-focused. And since funders pay for research, and therefore view their outputs as research articles, that’s all they think about. Because of this, OA mandates have a huge blind spot when it comes to how practitioners and researchers really engage with research content. A lot of engagement comes through interpretive pieces, which synthesize and contextualize research, helping everyone understand what matters today, the state of play in the field, and how research findings have come together in meaningful ways.
A land of research articles without contextual, interpretive, and editorial pieces to cut the salinity of esoteric, irrelevant, and tentative research may be the equivalent of “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Journals are virtual communities. The conversations that go on within them are valuable to the community members. If those conversations start to become just a litany of highly advanced, specialized, or tentative research articles, and there is no barometer for best practices, current state-of-the-art reviews, or similar guidance, major pathways into research will be lost.
What would this leave us with? The surveillance capitalists of Google and Facebook aren’t reliable community guides, either. They elevate sensationalistic information over reliable information. Their output is guided by advertising sales potential, not reader needs or community context.
By devaluing interpretive works and context, the OA movement may be exacting a higher price than we realize on journals and their communities. Ironically, by focusing on research articles at the expense of everything else, Gold OA may be making research less approachable, less likely to be utilized, and less relevant.
Kent Anderson is the CEO and founder of Caldera Publishing Solutions, editor of “The Geyser,” a past-President of the Society of Scholarly Publishing, and founder of “The Scholarly Kitchen.” He has worked as an executive of a technology startup and as a publishing executive at numerous non-profits, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.