Interview with Francisca Abad García

«Open access is the 15M of science»

Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Valencia

Francisca abad

Francisca García Abad is Professor of Library and Information Science and Professor of History of Science and Research at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Valencia. After graduating in Medicine and finishing her PhD thesis, her lines of research focused on scientific information systems. She has been responsible for coordinating the team that started up RODERIC, the university’s institutional repository. She is currently collaborating on several Open Access projects in the Spanish scientific production as well as in the study of international visibility for scientific publications of the University of Valencia.

Why has the scientific paper become the most valuable element for academic assessment?
Because it actually is the connecting thread we use in order to communicate the results of a specific research. It is what gives them visibility. Research is not finished until it is published. Normally, and especially in science, medicine and technology, it tends to be in the format of a scientific paper because it is a more immediate medium than a monograph or a book, which suits better the social sciences or the humanities. It is faster and also focuses the attention on an essential issue. Since the first scientific journals were created back in 1665, they became the channels for science communication, as opposed to texts that were used to communicate what was already consolidated.

How has the researcher profile changed in recent years?
Researchers are much more competitive, better educated and determined as well. Their research career is in the spotlight since the beginning… They are very young people who are constantly getting more and more prepared.

«Open Access has reformulated the entire life cycle of information»

What are the consequences of the pressure to publish?
It has a double consequence. On the one hand, it is a positive pressure as it has a «don’t fall asleep» effect and it is a way of measuring your performance. You are being paid and you have to show results. You have no choice but to investigate and to teach. You are also required to have a researcher profile. But there is also a downside to this, which is malpractice: chasing the impact factor instead of the quality of research, using «shortcuts» as redundant publications, «salami» publications [those that offer results in several articles, sort of sliced, without providing a valid justification for it]… Those who cannot take the pressure go more for quantity rather than quality. Therefore, production is elevated, but not everything is good.

Could we reach a point where the name of the publication is better valued than the quality of the research itself?
We cannot go that far: it is being done, and it is one of the fiercest criticisms that we can do to the assessment system. Quantity, rather than original and high-quality research, is being prioritized. This has been so much the case that if you check the CVs of some researchers, you realize that it cannot be possible to have twenty or thirty articles published in one year. In how many of those articles did they actually take part? How many were only signed? We can also see research teams that share signatures and at the end you don’t know who is involved in the final research; investigations are made like hotcakes, simply by applying a methodology in order to release an article and not focusing on getting results. Some of them don’t have an application or a social benefit beyond generating a personal CV…

This «publish or perish» motivation… Can also have other consequences such as, for example, neglecting science communication?
Yes. It makes people think twice when it comes to publishing enjoyable and beautiful science communication articles. Or for example, it makes people disregard the quality of their teaching as well as the generation of quality teaching materials to improve learning, because it is not worth it for a researcher’s career. You can publish a good science communication article, informative and beautiful, and although it had much impact, nobody will value it on your CV.

Is the review system for publication in prestigious journals here to stay?
Unfortunately, I think it is here to stay because I don’t see anything that can complement with a qualitative peer review.

Once the article is published, there is another added pressure which is to get the work quote.
You can choose the journal according to its impact but quoting does not depend on you. Well, it depends on several factors. Right now, there is a small marketing of articles in academic social networks in order to give them greater visibility but, except the «quoting clubs» where friends and friends of friends quote each other, it depends on the quality. There are a lot of articles published in journals with high impact factor which receive zero citations.

Open access Publications

Why does OA [Open Access] arise and what is it about?
It arises because there are several factors implied. First there is technology. The Internet changes the way scientists communicate. It is difficult to understand that with a tool that allows an increasingly open communication and also allows sharing the results for networking and popularising science, there are some channels closed by journal subscriptions. Secondly, it is also a reaction to the exorbitant prices of journals and the conditions in publishing houses. The scientific community had the expectation that the Internet would allow a freer communication, and it has not only led to the emergence of the movement but to its consolidation. All these things are now mixed with a growing awareness of public money exacerbated by the crisis. The institutions realize that they are paying two and three times for the same product. If it weren’t for institutional support, this initiative would become a much more difficult task to consolidate and it is actually here to stay because it is transforming the whole world of communication. We are now in full traffic.

I recently heard you say that Open Access is the Occupy movement of science.
Yes [laughs], and I repeat: for me, Open Access is the Occupy Movement of science. The first time I became interested in it was because of the rage I felt as director of a virtual library where publishing houses refused to sell journals and boasted about choosing clients. Simultaneously, many free journals started to emerge. When I first read the Open Access statement I thought it was a utopia, just as what the 15-M Movement demanded. For me it was a revolution. It has reformulated the entire life cycle of information.

Who is behind the big publishing houses? Why have we arrived to such concentration of journals in a few groups?
There is the publishing industry. We are not referring to small publishing groups. They are lobbyists, companies that have a powerful economic strength. We talk about publishers that control 2,000 journals or even more, with an international circulation. Every university or research centre in Spain, France, and Portugal… are paying for the same product that has previously been available for free. Although it is true that they have started a transformation process and have started purchasing new technology to make the materials more accessible, this does not justify the established prices or the restrictions.

Does OA contribute to greater transparency in research?
It contributes to the visibility of the research. There is an easier access to what others are publishing and avoid, for example, more plagiarism because it is possible to have access to what has been plagiarised. But in terms of greater transparency [doubts]… Well, as there is more visibility we can speak of more transparency, yes it does.

Open Access has its detractors too. What are the dangers of this publishing system?
The first danger is to not understand what Open Access means and to think of it as free publishing on the Internet, regardless of quality. When we talk about an Open Access journal, it has to have the same quality publishing standards as any other journal. The only change is in the traditional way of managing copyrights and, therefore, the access to the document and its subsequent use. Thinking that it is publishing without peer review is what those who are against it do because it threatens their business model. Also, there is ignorance. Whoever does not know that an OA journal works the same way traditional models did fear that their articles will be despised for its open access status. There are people who think that what is free is not as good as what you have to pay for.

But the fact that the author has to pay to get his/her work published can be a temptation for journals.
Of course, every law has a loophole. In the shadow of the «author pays» model, many fake publishing houses, or that work especially to make profits, have sprung. Such publishing houses often deceive both reviewers and authors.

«Those who cannot take the pressure go more for quantity rather than quality. Therefore, production is elevated, but not everything is good»

This generates distrust towards the «pay to post» system
It is true that it exits the threat of predatory journals that can only be fought with knowledge and wisdom. So we should promote Open Access as it is, with its limitations, and not sell it as a panacea, nor as the devil incarnate.

To what extent does this business model damage Open Access?
The «author pays» model promoted by fraudulent publishers is doing so much damage because it is giving arguments to those Open Access detractors that say: «Look, this is really bad.» But if we speak of that payment in high publishing criteria journals we are talking about a model where the author gets paid once and after that it is always free. This particular model suits better in fields such as science, technology and medicine, which have achieved greater public funding and where the costs of scientific publications are included in the expenses of the research.

What about smaller groups, those who have no funding?
This type of model is not viable in social sciences and humanities because the author is the one who should pay for it and this is not designed with these purposes. There are times when universities, through libraries, do pay a fee to certain publishing houses so author paying publication can be feasible. However, in these areas there are but a few journals that use this funding model.

© Mètode 2015

Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode.

Journalism graduate by the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Masters Degree in History of Science and Science Communication by the University of Valencia. She is a member of the Two Cultures Observatory, a multidisciplinary research group of the University of Valencia that focuses on the links between journalism and science. Now her research is focused on the communication of cancer, both in press and social networks.