Will open science matter?

Yesterday I posted this link, about how federally funded science will have to be made open access right away.  I’m all for this, as it has some upside and no downside that I can see.  Still, at the margin I am not sure it will make a huge difference.

Who says when the research is “ready” to be posted?  No matter what you put in the fine print, de facto that is a decision made by the scientists.  If scientists wish to delay open access publication, I doubt if this will stop them.  “The paper simply isn’t finished yet.”  The law cannot in practice dictate otherwise.  Of course scientists already put plenty of works on-line and open to the public, and this private calculation will continue, but with only modest changes.

The actual main effect will be to enable scientists to resist commercial attempts to monopolize publication rights in closed access form.  Presumably such contracts now will be illegal.  But think about the new equilibrium: there will be a final, published, canonical version of the article published in The Journal of Botchagaloup.  There will be an open access, not yet published, non-canonical (no proper pp. at the very least) version on the scientist’s home page.  And very often there will be an illegal copy of the canonical version on SciHub, the pirate site for scientific papers.  Plus the data copies that circulated before the commercial publisher made the authors take them down.

How is that so different from the status quo?  Some scientists who didn’t get a crack at the data the first time around won’t have to wait as long to access it.  And maybe scientists will make more of an effort for the open access version of their papers to be closer to the canonical versions published in commercial journals.  This could prove a modest benefit, though you, as an outside scientist, wishing to cite “p.43” just won’t know how canonical the open access version will be.  And presumably for-profit commercial journals will add extra stages to the final production process, if only to keep interest in the product they are selling, relative to the open access versions on-line.  So I don’t think it will “do under” for-profit scientific publishing, not to mention that many articles are not federally funded by the U.S. government.

A more radical policy change would have been to require the journals to make their final versions of the papers open to the public, and in the final, canonical versions.  That would create greater benefits, but also run the risk of putting those journals out of business.  As I understand the new dictate, it does not do this.

The new law also will give scientists leverage against private companies that wish to buy up the research rights and not publicize the results.  Probably this is a benefit, though that doesn’t hold a priori, as it does raise the cost of private sector involvement by forcing them to share the information more.  And some unscrupulous scientists might try to get a better deal from the companies by releasing a different and inferior version of “the public research results” to the open access community.  Still, on net I expect these are benefits.

Addendum: You may recall that Fast Grants had its own version of an open access requirement.  I think this worked quite well!  But it is interesting why it might have proven effective.  I think we credibly signaled that people with open and early good results would be plausible candidates for additional funding, and soon, and indeed some of them were.  To the extent that the federal government can signal the same, good incentives will be all the stronger.  But this new OSTP order does not coordinate future funding decisions per se, and I don’t see any clauses that the NIH, NSF, and others are bound to revise their funding policies accordingly, to favor researchers who come out with speedy, open results.  So the benefits here could be much greater if the entire federal science apparatus could signal its prioritization of speed and openness.  We are still quite far from this.  Nonetheless, this policy is a marginal improvement and a step in the right direction and its creates some preconditions for matters getting better yet.


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