The Dark Side of Open Access

Not Open_Access_logo2If you are an independent researcher as I am you will know the feeling of despair when you find a reference to a useful looking paper that is hidden behind a journal’s paywall with no free version available on the internet. Research institutions pay subscriptions that allow their members unfettered access but the rest of us have to pay a fee. For this reason I welcome the gradual move towards open access journals that will eventually mean that all research is available online with free access to everyone, but there is a darker side to this movement that I am a lot less keen on. Let’s take Philica as an example of an open access journal that I would certainly consider publishing as a show of support. It accepts submissions in any subject and I particularly like it because its peer-reviews are made public and allow for dynamic changes when subsequent research supports or refutes a published work. Unfortunately there is a catch for independent scientists. You can only register to publish in Philica if you are a full-time researcher employed by a  university, hospital and other research institution. Apparently open access does not mean open to submissions from all authors [update: 21/2/2014 The policy at philica has apparently changed a little and independent researchers can apply for membership if they can show that they are capable researchers].

In the traditional publication model it would be very unusual to find a journal that placed explicit limitation on who could publish in its pages. It is not something I had experienced before, but with open access journals this is becoming more common. For now there are still plenty of small open access journals that take submissions from anyone, but will they last? I sense that the thin edge of the wedge is in place and as it is driven in we will see unapproved researchers driven out in an effort to reduce the costs of publication. The result could have unexpected consequences for science and society.

Green, Gold or Diamond

Open access usually means that anyone can access papers for free. This comes in different forms sometimes termed green or gold open access. With green open access the journal allows authors to place a version of their paper on the internet where anyone can access it for free. Usually they do not allow the typeset version produced by the journal in this way but there is nothing to stop the online version being updated to reflect all changes made as a result of the peer-review. This works for the journals because university libraries cannot rely on authors to provide the open access copy and must therefore continue to pay the journal subscription.

With gold open access the journal itself provides a free copy of every paper online. Some long-standing journals experimented with this option but found very quickly that libraries would cancel subscriptions cutting off the journals revenue stream.  In some cases they have agreed to allow open access after a delay of a few years but new research is most relevant as soon as it appears so this is not a very satisfactory solution. Under pressure from funding agencies the new trend is for the journals to move towards payments from authors as an alternative to library subscriptions, but the payments can be several thousand dollars per publication which makes life particularly difficult for areas of theoretical science that can produce many papers with a low-budget. It is of course especially difficult for most independent scientists who may have no funding at all.

For professional scientists the ideal standard for open access is now being called platinum or diamond access meaning that it is free to publish and free to access. However, this does not mean that it is open for anyone to publish. There is no name available for that level of standard because professional researchers do not feel a need for it. Their only real concern is to reduce the cost of publishing which impacts research budgets. In order to make diamond open access possible it is necessary to reduce the cost of running a journal to virtually zero. This is perfectly feasible since the essential work of editors and reviewers is done for free by scientists out of a sense of duty and career promotion. If journals are published online only, the costs are reduced to whatever is required to run a website. This can also be reduced to essentially nil if there is a centrally run infrastructure.

This week Field medalist Sir Timothy Gowers has announced a new initiative funded in France that will provide just such as infrastructure. Scientists will be able to pull together and quickly set up epijournals in whatever area of science they choose at virtually no cost. Although they will be free to charge a publication fee if they wish, this is likely to be very low or zero and reader access will always be freely available because the system will run on the back of the HAL archive which is an arXiv mirror and open access to all readers. This is not the first project that has tried to change the way that science publishing runs but because it will be available to all areas of research and will have solid funding support it is likely to take over as the major platform for peer-review. The catch for independent research is that you will not be able to publish in epijournals unless you can submit to arXiv and that is not possible for everyone.

The scientists and mathematicians who are setting up the system do not seem to regard this as a problem. They believe that any serious researcher can easily find the endorser required to allow them access to arXiv, but as 1700 researchers who use viXra can testify this is not the case. At present about 15% of papers submitted to viXra are accepted in journals after peer-review, but this figure is likely to diminish to near zero if arXiv based journals take hold. To be fair Gowers has said that epijournals could allow linking to repositories other than arXiv. Whether they allow linking to viXra remains to be seen. My guess is that even if the epijournal infrastructure allows it, most individual journals will limit submissions to arXiv. In fact they may go further and only allow submissions from categories within arXiv that are related to the subject areas of the journal. This will reduce the overhead of having to reject too many papers that are off-topic and with near-zero budgets to work with this is going to be an attractive option. This could mean that even authors who find themselves limited to arXiv’s generic categories such as general maths and general physics may find themselves unable to submit to journals. I hope I will be proven too pessimistic but it seems to me that the writing is on the wall.

Why Does it Matter?

You may well ask why this matters. It is clear from the many discussions about open access on the internet that including publication access for all authors is not a concern for professional scientists. Much of the drive towards open access is being piloted by mathematicians and mathematics is rarely a controversial subject. Apart from a few rare cases such as the work of Godel or Cantor, mathematical progress is accepted very quickly. It is hard to argue with a proof. It is unlikely that any barrier could prevent a good work of mathematics from being recognized even if it came from an independent mathematician without the usual affiliations. But what about subjects more infested with the interference of politics? Take climate science as an example. Would it not be very tempting for the establishment to be able to undermine the work of climate skeptics simply by hindering their ability to publish? I suspect that journal editors will find it all too convenient that they can limit who can submit research by such artificial means. The wedge will be driven in further and it will become harder for scientists on the fringe to get the credibility they need from publication, or even to submit their work to someone who is at least required to read and criticize. Science is sleep walking into a Brave New World where anyone can speak but only the approved few can be heard. I think that those who are leading the fight for open access need to understand this now before it is too late. They must define open access to also mean openness for anyone to have access to the ability to submit for peer-review. At present their only concern is to remove the financial cost of access. Later they will see that such short-sightedness also has a cost.

22 Responses to The Dark Side of Open Access

  1. Wes Hansen says:

    You know, Phil, I think the whole damn paradigm is slowly changing; education itself is slowly but surely evolving to open access. As an example I would point to the development of MOOCs by the educational elite – This is not to say your concerns are not without merit (in my opinion). And I think they’re relevant to mathematics as well; consider cases from the past such as that of Everiste Galois and Hoene Wronski. The important thing is to keep these works in repository SOMEWHERE!

    On another front, I’ve been meaning to ask you how you define “event” in the context of your event symmetry. Perhaps you would find this paper of interest: The author demonstrates that “any REASONABLE ontological embedding of quantum theory is impossible” and then “characterizes exactly which parts of QM can’t be embedded in an (noncontextual) ontological theory (noncontextual is a generalization of Bell’s locality). He does this “by examining the probability distributions over certain events; if such a probability distribution can’t be reproduced by a noncontextual ontological theory, we shall deem it truly quantum.”

    Are your “events” defined as sets of probability distributions? You know, based on my limited understanding, bi-simulation is just a relaxed symmetry and symmetry is a manifestation of conservation . . . perhaps event bi-simulation . . . well, take a look at this short paper:

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      “events” just refers to space-time events, i.e. points on the 4d manifold, nothing fancy.

      • Wes Hansen says:

        Ah, well, that’s no good! Events should be defined as correlations. I agree with your FQXI paper in that causal loops are too ambiguous to define. You see this in chaos theory with the butterfly effect and in quantum mechanics with the measurement problem; if causality is fundamental then defining exactly the causal mechanism which effects decoherence should be a simple problem. And the arrow of time really emerges due to decoherence, as demonstrated by Edwin Jaynes; of course this is a function of information and entropy . . . decoherence, if I understand correctly, represents an increase in entropy/decrease in negentropy.
        Personally, I don’t believe there’s a logical distinction between spacetime and matter and in the end it’s all mental process – quantum computation. That’s why I found the paper by Mr. Santos interesting . . . Something else I find interesting: in any bootstrapping logic distinction and oscillation seem to be co-dependent arising; the oscillation preserves the distinction. And you can look at this as discrete/continuous dualism! I think resonance is fundamental to the Universe; you see it everywhere, even in our theories!

  2. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Phil, “open access” clearly means “open access for readers” only. Scientific journals always have to have a restricted access and/or quality filters for the submitters. This is crucial, it’s really about the definition of science which not really everyone can be doing.

    • In scientific journals there is always some-one deciding what is good science and what is not. Here subjectivity and greed for power enter the game and even top scientists can get a label of a crackpot if his vision does not conform with those of the hegemony.

      By reading your posts concerning interpretations of quantum mechanics, where you label everyone who dares to not agree fully with you a totally unscientific bigot, every-one understands how dangerous it is when some clique has the power to decide what good science is.

      We are not living in an ideal world and for this reason viXra is so badly needed. There must be places where work what is too much ahead of its time can wait for times when scientific community has developed the maturity to receive it.

      • Lubos Motl says:

        Dear Matti, in the real world, no editors’ (or other people’s) decisions may be perfect in the long run. However, this doesn’t change anything about the fact that journals, in order to preserve their quality and high enough validity of the content, simply need subjects who filter the submissions. In general, science needs this separation of wheat from weeds – that’s what all the scientific method is all about.

        On my blog, I am allowing an overwhelming majority of the would-be commenters to comment but I ban them when they get too annoying or post too much nonsense – for example anti-quantum-mechanics crackpots you (favorably) mentioned but many others. This is needed to prevent my blog from becoming a cesspool, too.

        It’s not shocking that you, who belong to the weeds in the classification above, will always be annoyed by any quality filters but this personal fact of yours can’t change much about the validity and importance of my words, either.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      Lubos, In the past journals have always had quality filters, but never restricted access in this sense. I never heard of this before open access journals in the last few years. Editors can always reject submissions quickly if they are unsuitable without sending them to a reviewer. I am not against this, but restricting who can submit based on who you are employed by is a dangerous new development. Restrictions based on which archive you send your preprints to will be worse and if it reaches the point where people cannot submit to journals because their submissions are moved to the general physics category in arXiv on the whim of an anonymous administrator who does not even provide a reason then science will have entered a dangerous territory, I do not expect you to agree with this until it affects climate scientists. I am drawing attention to this trend now in the hope that enough people will agree to prevent it from going further, but I am not hearing any such response.

      • Ervin Goldfain says:


        You seem to a lone voice in raising the flag against this new development in censoring science. Once again, administrators and politicians in control are tightening the grip and only few people are aware of it.

        But my question to you (and all for that matter) is: What is the practical way out of this initiative? How do you stop the trend when your warning falls on deaf years?

      • Lubos Motl says:

        Dear Phil, submissions to hep-th have been restricted from the beginning of the arXiv in 1991 and after 21 years and tens of thousands of preprints that the server has collected, I haven’t heard about a single case when this restriction would lead to the absence of a valuable contribution on the arXiv.

        On the other hand, journals in climate science are formally open to all researchers which still didn’t help them from becoming cesspools of alarmist crackpottery where solid work isn’t allowed as long as its conclusions affect certain questions that have become politicized.

      • Philip Gibbs says:

        Ervin, I think for now we just have to monitor and see what happens

  3. Orwin O'Dowd says:

    Budget cuts brig a predictable reaction, in placeholders seeking to conserve grant revenues. But in the same round of new politics, the right to economic opportunity has achieved some recognition in Europe. And anti-monopoly legislation is increasingly global. Academics must not think that they are above the law, but their Medieval roots in the clergy, who made their own cannon law, constantly tempt them to this.

  4. Kernel says:

    There seems to be the unspoken assumption amongst scientists that journal articles are actually necessary for the scientific process. For some sociological reason, it is believed that a result is not “scientific” unless it has been peer-reviewed and published in a journal taken axiomatically to be a publisher of good science.

    If an outsider wants to get their ideas out there, why not make a video of a lecture and put it on YouTube? They can promote the video by sending it to colleagues for comment. I consider a prototypical example of this kind of science to be Norman Wildberger, who re-examines the foundations of mathematics on his YouTube channel entirely outside of the traditional mathematical publication industry. He’s really worth checking out for anyone who was ever bothered by the axiom of choice (more importantly, the axiom of infinity).

    My problem with the open access movement is that it’s simply not radical enough. It’s not about who has access to the journals, it’s about the journal system itself.

  5. Robert L. Oldershaw says:

    Here is an off-the-cuff idea for discussion.

    Why not have scientific publishing work somewhat like

    You post your papers to the archive.

    The archive only accepts papers that are scientific and rational, and that are clearly identified as pure speculation, falsifiable via definitive predictions or somewhere in between.

    There is a comment section after each paper that allows others to support or criticize (or ignore) the paper.

    The archive would have to employ excellent referees who could balance open-mindedness with reasonable skepticism, and especially those with the intuition to see the potentially useful ideas amid the rubbish and needless repetition.

    Would this satisfy the openness and quality issues?

  6. Dear Lubos,

    I find it impossible to see why people taking seriously the possibility that physics did not find its final form during roughly 500 hundred years after Newton (vanishingly short time interval in greater perspective) are “anti-quantum crackpots” and “bigots”.

    Personally I have absolutely nothing against quantum. Just the opposite, I dare to count myself to those who are realizing how profound the quantum revolution of the world view really will be. It is much much more than the view allowed by the narrow-minded taboo based Copenhagen interpretation.

    Science can make progress only by confessing and becoming fully conscious of existing problems and paradoxes. For instance, what you call Copenhagen interpretation and regard as the only rational alternative is basically a political trick sweeping a fundamental problem under the rug.

    The price is heavy: as you conclude in your recent posting consciousness cannot be understood scientifically and does not therefore deserve theorist’s attention. Sorry, but to me this kind of attitude looks really dangerous and could mean the end of science. Are you absolutely sure that your own personal vanity is not in some way behind this kind of drastic conclusion?

    • Wes Hansen says:

      The efficacy of consciousness is well demonstrated and, hence, can be scientifically understood – as a force of nature! If you doubt this take a look at Brown University’s Braingate program ( and the related developments Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research propagated at the bequest of DARPA (; these prosthetic devices transform imagination into control signals. In other words, they demonstrate that consciousness manipulates information which manipulates matter. And if that doesn’t convince you take a look at the research of Harvard’s Sarah Lazar ( People who dismiss consciousness as an epiphenomena are not conscientious scientists – plain and simple, they have an agenda!
      I would also direct everyone who is interested in this post to Adam Crabtree’s paper, Position Paper on Theory ( which follows Charles Pierce. According to Pierce, the scientific enterprise is a continuous process of theory development – the evolution of ideas. This process should rightfully involve the TOTALITY of human kind. Human kind acts as a “community of inquirers” whose aim is consensus of opinion where the optimal opinion maximizes belief and minimizes doubt. Since life is constantly in flux, constantly evolving, to Pierce there are no absolute truths or laws; the closest one can get is relative belief which is, quite simply, an opinion on which one is prepared to act. Mr. Crabtree:
      “Theories are conjectures about law or regularity in the data. So to the definition of theory as a “guess” at what underlies the data of our experience, we must add that a theory tells us how the data will tend to be experienced in the future.”
      Mr. Crabtree points out that no experience can be excluded as data but that different modes of experience fall within different data domains and that theorists “must be vigilant about tendencies to miss or dismiss” data types. He gives as an example the tendency of cognitive neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to equate all mental activity with brain activity. And, with the political nature of the scientific endeavor, these tendencies can have a profound impact. Mr. Crabtree quotes biologist Richard Lewontin:

      “Carl Sagan, like his Canadian counterpart David Suzuki, has devoted extraordinary energy to bringing science to a mass public. In doing so, he is faced with a contradiction for which there is no clear resolution. On the one hand science is urged on us as a model of rational deduction from publicly verifiable facts, freed from the tyranny of unreasoning authority. On the other hand, given the immense extent, inherent complexity, and counterintuitive nature of scientific knowledge, it is impossible for anyone, including non-specialist scientists, to retrace the intellectual paths that lead to scientific conclusions about nature. In the end we must trust the experts and they, in turn, exploit their authority as experts and their rhetorical skills to secure our attention and our belief in things that we do not really understand […] Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.”

      So the point I was making with MOOCs above is that the academic enterprise – theory evolution – is eventually going to take place completely in the CLOUD. We’re going to have these MOOC educated Mad Hatters whose access to computational power is limited solely by disposable income and theory development is going to evolve into something resembling open source code – anyone who takes the time and makes the effort to understand what is going on can contribute! Of course once the CLOUD becomes an aware intelligence the real Tea Party is going to commense . . .

  7. marni says:

    Hear, hear. Thanks to Phil for explaining these issues so clearly. I don’t believe these mathematicians are so naive as to forget the existence of Physics and other political academic groups. Rather, they share the general academic opinion that only the chosen few could possibly do anything of relevance, and that everyone gets their job entirely on merit. To be fair, as you say, a brilliant mathematician probably would find a career, one way or another. But they must realise they are setting up a template for other fields to follow.

    Personally, I feel it is too late to save our species from extinction. Once this phase of Neofascism sets in, nothing will stop it.

  8. Dirk Pons says:

    Thanks Phil for an interesting commentary.
    One of the issues with open-source publishing is its uncertain business model. How do publishing company owners, who are accustomed to their income stream, continue to get that when the product changes? We have seen this discontinuity with the music recording industry, and books and newspapers. The publishers, in all cases, are not willing to simply walk away from their business. They actively resist the change, and try to shape the change in a way that optimises their outcomes. Or, they have to offer complementary products and new propositions of value to customers (to compensate for lost business). Finding those new products takes time. Organisations do not like to shrink while that is happening.
    Hence journals charging US$3000 for open-access. Clearly that is what their accountants have worked out is the present value of a paper, plus they probably add a bit more as a disincentive. So they are trying to shape the game to an author-pays open access.
    A second point is that the current journal system is well-aligned with academics personal career aspirations. Academic promotion, and self-esteem, are critically dependent on quantity of peer-review journal publications. Some of this is altruistic and some is selfish, but it’s a powerful motivator regardless. Some governments fund their universities according to how many papers they publish (weighted by some measure of impact of course). Academics are as fastidious about their list of publications as bower birds are about the things they collect. And in both cases they are necessary. (Independent researchers are not under these constraints and may not appreciate how strong they are).
    So there is a close alignment between journals and the career needs of academics, which reinforces the existing journal paradigm. What this means is that it is not simply a case of making journals open, but dealing with the business resistance to change, and giving academics something else with which to measure their personal success. Both of those need to be done.
    Regarding the first, the history of change suggests that publishers are unlikely to move to open-access by persuasion. They have too much to lose. They are too entrenched in an existing business model and like any established organisation tend to lack the agility to change significantly. They simply cannot imagine a different scenario to the one they are in. In such situations the only reliable way to get change is to compete directly and force discontinuous change into the market. Then only do resistors find the drive to innovate. Not all make it, and that’s also fine. Recent examples would be android operating system (open source) vs. Microsoft windows. Look at what a back foot MS is on, and how they have had to innovate. Note also that Nokia’s OS was a casualty: abandoned after millions in development costs. Who had heard of Samsung ten years ago? So there is hope for open access to academic literature, but it will not come without conflict.
    Regarding the second, an essential feature of any widespread open-source model is to find a way of recognising academics’ legitimate career needs. (Some independent researchers may rile at that, but let’s put that aside). There has to be either a continuation or some new proposition of value for them. There are many ways to achieve this, but it will take some creativity to work them into a usable solution. It will also take time to build trust.
    And finally, having an open submission process has the potential to either burden the journal with the cost of filtering out inappropriate content, or pull down the quality of the journal. So independent researchers need to also come up with some creative ways to protect the integrity of the publishing site.

    So that makes three additional requirements:
    (1) The need to field a competitive open-source journal, without relying on publisher’s volition to change.
    (2) The need to accommodate career needs of academics,
    (3) The need to protect the integrity and reputation of the open publisher.

  9. Paul Wells says:


    I think what is missing from viXra is an open critical peer-review process I think people should be able to publish what they want and then (invited?) reviewers rate papers. A little like the Rotten Tomatoes website for films…


    • Philip Gibbs says:

      Paul, this is what the new arXiv overlay journals will aim to do. We have to wait and see if they will accept submissions from viXra too but the omens are not good. Such a system will only work if well funded and supported by VIPs like Gowers. I dont want to make the huge development effort required myself to build such a system given that I am not likely to find enough reviewers to make it work. If epijournals shut out scientists who do not have access to arXiv I may reconsider. Perhaps I can find enough interest in developing an open source solution if I write an initial spec.

      The Rotten Tomatoes idea is fine but there is a lot more at stake here and any solution must be robust against people who would game the system to fake their success. One way is to have a closed system of expert reviewers as they will for epijournals but realistically I can’t hope to get enough experts to make that work for viXra. The alternative is an open system of reviewers who would build there own reputation as experts within the system. It is really hard to design a self supporting system that would work that way. Look at the stack exchange system for example. It is good enough for answering questions but if it were applied to peer-review it would collapse because people can build a good reputation just by answering lots of questions with mediocre answers. The system has to be better at rewarding real talent and honesty in a way that is impossible to abuse.

  10. Robert L. Oldershaw says:

    For the type of system being discussed, I would argue that the reviewing/commenting has to be open to anybody.

    If the author games the system in the positive direction, it is likely that negative reviews would follow and provide balance.

    If the author’s critics game the system in the negative direction, then the author and others have the opportunity to answer the criticism and provide balance.

  11. Paul Wells says:

    I agree with Robert.

    Going back to the “Rotten Tomatoes” analogy- there is a strong commercial interest to “game” the system but the “wisdom of crowds” kicks in and I think the average ratings are very accurate. There is plenty at stake there too (movies are big money!) but somehow the “open” review system works well with minimal maintenance.

    So Phil — why not give it a try ?


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