Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Another prominent misstatement about OA and peer review

Stevan Harnad, Hidden Cost of Failing to Access Information, Open Access Archivangelism, June 5, 2008.  Excerpt:

"Disseminating research via the web is appealing, but it lacks journals' peer-review quality filter," says Philip Altbach in: Hidden cost of open access Times Higher Education Supplement 5 June 2008

Professor Altbach's essay in the Times Higher Education Supplement is based on a breath-takingly fundamental misunderstanding of both Open Access (OA) and OA mandates like Harvard's: The content that is the target of the OA movement is peer-reviewed journal articles, not unrefereed manuscripts.

It is the author's peer-reviewed final drafts of their journal articles that Harvard and 43 other institutions and research funders worldwide have required to be deposited in their institutional repositories....

The journal's (and author's) name and track record continue to be the indicators of quality, as they always were. The peers (researchers themselves) continue to review journal submissions (for free) as they always did....

What is needed is more careful thought and understanding of what OA actually is, what it is for, and how it works, rather than uninformed non sequiturs such as those in the essay in question.


  • Altbach's claim appeared in letter to the editor in response to an article by Zoe Corbyn.  Corbyn was talking about the costs of peer review and did not make the same mistake Altbach did.
  • An earlier version of Stevan's blog post was published on the same page as Altbach's letter in the Times Higher Education Supplement.  The page also includes a good letter from Owen Stephens.  For a third letter correcting Altbach, submitted to the THE but not yet published, see Andrew Adams on the AmSci OA Forum.
  • Altbach might have meant (1) that OA intrinsically bypasses peer review and that OA policies promote it in that form, or (2) that the rise of OA will jeopardize the existence of peer-reviewed journals.  Taken literally, his language asserts the first.  (From his letter, not quoted by Stevan:  "But there are several problems with [open access]. Chief among them is that peer review is eliminated - all knowledge becomes equal. There is no quality control on the internet....")  If he meant it, then he is deeply uninformed and Stevan is exactly right to correct him.  If he meant the second, then he should have been much clearer and, like others who allude to this supposed problem without connecting the dots, he should have offered a supporting argument.  For a detailed analysis and rebuttal of that objection, see my article from September 2007.
  • The success of the OA movement means that every day newcomers hear about it for the first time.  One of the burdens of that success is that many newcomers pick up and spread old myths about it.  If Altbach isn't new to OA issues, then he's inexcusably careless with them, and his claim about peer review is one of the classic myths that newcomers have been picking up and spreading for years.