An open letter to the SASP: Opening up access to the journal

Dear SASP

I’m a young(-ish) and relatively inexperienced author who lately has had a few concerns about the direction of the South African Journal of Physiotherapy (SAJP). I’m proud of the high quality research that is being conducted in the field of rehabilitation and health sciences in South Africa, and like every other academic, researcher and author, I’m trying to make a useful contribution to the field. My concern however, is that most (if not all) of the wonderful research that’s done in this country will never be seen by anyone who is not a member of the South African Society of Physiotherapy.

After thinking about some of these issues, I thought I’d take this opportunity to write to you, in the hope that you might consider some of the benefits of moving the SAJP towards an open access model of publication. I’m sure you’re aware of the disruption taking place in the publishing industry at the moment, with content creators using what are effectively free services to bypass the traditional publication process entirely. Consider the following statement:

“Scientific publishers should be terrified that some of the world’s best scientists, people at or near their research peak, people whose time is at a premium, are spending hundreds of hours each year creating original research content for their blogs, content that in many cases would be difficult or impossible to publish in a conventional journal. What we’re seeing here is a spectacular expansion in the range of the blog medium. By comparison, the journals are standing still.” Nielson, M. (2004)

The warning signs of disruption in an industry can be seen when there is a sudden proliferation of entities offering similar services that fulfill a customer’s need. With that in mind, consider that in the last few years there has been a significant increase in the number of new journals that are open access (BioMed Central, PLoS Medicine), or established journals that are moving towards an open model of publication (Pubmed Central, British Medical Journal, Physiotherapy Canada). These and many other high profile academic journals have recognised the importance of making peer-reviewed research available for everyone in the world, and taken the step towards making it a reality. They recognise that knowledge is essentially useless unless it can be accessed by anyone who wants it, and they accept their social and educational responsibility to advance new and important ideas in a world that is desperately in need of answers to desperate problems.

Opening access to scientific research is in everyone’s best interest, as the journal increases it’s readership, authors increase their citations, and anyone interested in that particular paper gets to read it. If the role of the academic journal is to register, certify, disseminate and preserve ideas, open access seems to be the most efficient way to achieve these goals. Indeed, providing the results of research to anyone with an internet connection must be the best way to make sure that the ideas published in scientific papers are original, disseminated widely and preserved. If publishers don’t seize the opportunity to benefit from a move towards openness, they may find authors increasingly self-archiving their works, leaving traditional publishers out of the loop entirely. These tools are available, free to use and provide researchers with an alternative that would see their work being spread far more widely than if it were stuck behind a paywall.

Researchers have the most to gain by the open access movement, and may soon question the usefulness of a gated system that severely limits the reach of their scientific contributions. Any author will tell you that what they want most of all is for more people to read and cite their work. With most papers essentially invisible to most researchers, how is the status quo benefiting authors? If publishers don’t begin moving towards opening up access, they may find themselves without any relevant content, as scholars establish open repositories in which to deposit the final, peer-reviewed drafts of their work. The University of the Western Cape has recently created a Research Repository, and other institutions will surely follow, perhaps making use of the Open Archive Initiative to ensure cross-institution / international compatibility. The time is approaching when authors will ask why they should pay for access to knowledge when the cost of self-publication is essentially zero (and the cost of purchasing articles is enormous)?

On the periphery of the publication problem, there are also calls for copyright law as it relates to academic publication be revised, and that this “rebellion” should be led by academics in higher education. In addition, some have argued that the entire system of scientific publication is broken, with powerful academic journals and publishers actually hindering the progress of science. In the end though, innovation will happen, with or without the participation of academic journal publishers, and opening up access to peer-reviewed research could be the first step. Creative Commons licensing provides authors and publishers with less restrictive options with which to release content, and is increasingly being embraced by the academic community.

I see this disruption of the publication industry as an opportunity for the SASP to lead the way forward as an example for other academic journals, both locally and internationally. You have the chance to be among the first to offer the collective knowledge of South African physiotherapists to the world, and play an important part in the development and upliftment of our shared communities of practice.

I hope that the ideas outlined in this letter provide enough background for you to consider opening up access to the SAJP. I look forward to your response.

Kind regards,
Michael Rowe

PS. See the following links for additional information on the topic:

Open research

I’ve been thinking about the concept of open research since listening to Jon Udell’s interview with Jean-Claude Bradley on his open notebook science project.  The idea is similar to the open approach to writing software in that the process is transparent and open to scrutiny by anyone.  This could have important implications for the soundness of the methodology behind the research, the distribution of results and the potential for massive collaboration on research projects.

Open research makes use of social tools like wikis (wikiresearch), blogs, Google Docs and social networks of like-minded individuals, that allow for collaboration, rapid publication and increased access to information for anyone with an internet connection.  There is also the suggestion that openness in research could lead to more innovation by stimulating ideas that allow others to make contributions to the body of knowledge that may not have been the original intent of the researcher.

However, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of conducting research in an open environment, that is subject to scrutiny by everyone and largely against the culture of secrecy in scientific research.  There are definitely issues with the process and one example of how conflict could arise is by publishing primary data openly.  This has the obvious benefit in that anyone could take that information and use it in ways not intended by the researcher, taking data that may have never seen the light of day and creating new knowledge.  The downside is that someone else could beat you to the finish line by publishing your results and negating your work.

There are other approaches that aren’t as “open” as publishing everything concerned with the project.  For example, you could choose to publish only your methodology or ideas around where the project is headed and request input around that, or raw data could be summarised before publishing online.  Other, similar fields are also becoming more mainstream, like open peer review, in which the peer review process of publication is made public, and open notebook science.

What will the world be like when all knowledge is freely available?