Publish and be poor

Scientific information usually disseminates in peer-reviewed journals. A pecking order pushes the best science into the highest-ranked journals. Most articles, however, end up in one of thousands of other periodicals.

The internet has precipitated change; now, almost all journals publish online, too, but usually behind a paywall. The argument that scientific findings should be freely available is compelling. Some scientists blog about their research online, but without peer review their findings lack credibility. "Open-access" publishing, pioneered by the Public Library of Science in the US, offers a third way. Open access involves peer review, editorial and quality production processes. The papers, however, are then freely available online.

Perfect? Not quite. Even without printing, the publication costs for a typical paper are several thousand pounds. If readers don't pay, the cost falls on the author. There is unease about authors paying to publish potentially controversial findings. Most, but by no means all, science today is funded by grants that include publication costs. But where will poorer scientists go? Conventional scientific publishing houses could get squeezed and the societies whose journal sales keep them afloat might also disappear. Science, like journalism, is having to face the perils of publishing in the internet age.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan