Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Benefits of OA preprints

I'm taking part in the Symposium on The Future of Scholarly Communication sponsored by Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy.  It just occurred to me that I should cross-blog my contributions here on OAN.

Since Ed Felten opened the symposium with a look at the Ithaka report on University Publishing in a Digital Age, my first post was a revised version of my OAN post on the report's weak understanding of OA.

Yesterday Ed asked the panel for their thoughts on the Old System in which access was delayed until peer review and publication and a New System in which access to preprints is immediate and peer review and publication take place after an initial wave of online discussion.  (Read his full post for details.)  Here's my response:

The New System supports two good things that facilitate research:  immediate access and open access.

Peer review is valuable but time-consuming.  Because it’s valuable, we should support it, conduct it, and take advantage of it.  But because it’s time-consuming, we should only let it delay certification, not access.

I agree with Stan [Katz] that the New System won’t work equally well in all fields.  It’s best suited to those fields, like physics and computer science, with an active preprint culture.  My field (philosophy) doesn’t have one, but I do my part by providing immediate open access to my own preprints.  He’s also right that some scholars fear exposing their work to plagiarism and disqualifying it for journal publication.  But a preprint exchange can actually deter plagiarism by making it as easy to detect as it is to commit.  And the number of journals outside medicine that refuse to consider articles that have circulated as preprints is rapidly declining.  On the other side, preprint repositories put a timestamp on their deposits and can establish the author’s priority over others who may be working on the same problem.  This is a large advantage that helps explain the rise of science journals over science books in the 17th century.

The drawback to the New System is that immediate open access is limited to unrefereed preprints.  Sometimes we’re willing to dive into the slush pile and use our own judgment to sort the better from the worse among the papers with some keyword relevance to our current research.  But sometimes we’re not willing, and sometimes we’re not competent.

However, this drawback isn’t a reason to shun preprint exchanges, either as authors or as readers.  It’s a reason to cultivate them so that researchers have a choice.  When we’re willing to use our own judgment and spend a little more time exploring the wilderness, we’ll turn to the preprint exchanges.  When we want the benefit of peer review, we’ll only have to wait for it. 

If we're smart, we'll also provide open access to the peer-reviewed postprints.