Alfred Hartemink, professor and chair of the Department of Soil Science, has been studying soils throughout the world for over 30 years. Throughout those three decades, he has had a keen interest in the system of publishing research papers. He is the editor-in-chief of the journal Geoderma Regional and teaches a course on scientific publishing for graduate students.

Historically, research papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and institutions and readers were charged to access and read those papers. In the past 10 years open access publishing has become an option. Hartemink recently published a paper on the topic, and it’s something about which he thinks researchers should be talking.

Alfred Hartemink, Department of Soil Sciences chair, speaks during the CALS Global Spring Symposium at the DeLuca Biochemical Sciences Building UW-Madison in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, May 1, 2018. Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS

What is open access publishing?

Very simply said, it means that a paper, upon acceptance, is immediately available to everyone electronically. It’s not behind a wall that requires you to pay, and you don’t need to go to the library. The only thing you need to have is internet access.

Currently, about a quarter of papers are open access across scientific fields. But there are large differences between disciplines. Around 80 percent of papers in astrophysics and tropical medicine, for example, are open access, while less than 10 percent of papers are in pharmacy or nuclear chemistry.

There are different models of open access journals too. There are journals that are totally open access, like the journals of the Public Library of Science (PLoS). Most journals are hybrids offering the option of open access but also publishing traditionally.

What are predatory journals?

Predatory journals rose along with open access because anyone who can produce a PDF and put it on the web can call themselves a publisher now. There are about 1500 new publishers. Many of them have low ethics because they are only interested in publishing as much as possible and making money. Some of them have no peer review, and they accept everything.

What does open access mean to researchers?

The difference for researchers who choose open access is they need to pay to get their papers published. If you have not budgeted for it, you need to find that money somewhere. The cost of publishing a paper in an open access journal, which can be $3,000 or $4,000, may mean a researchers can’t publish there. I’ve seen an increase in papers from countries where 25 years ago you wouldn’t see papers – Cuba or Tanzania or Papua New Guinea. But if you start requiring them to pay, many won’t be able do it anymore. Some of our researchers here wouldn’t be able to afford publishing their papers in open access journals.

What does open access mean to the public?

For the public, they have greater access to scientific findings, much of which is paid with taxpayer money. But at the same time, we have to consider that there might be 100 open access papers on a topic. How do they sift through the papers? We can make things open access, but we still need some sort of translation so the public understands what is in the paper.

I also believe that if people are truly interested, they can obtain the information. There are platforms that offer papers, such as ResearchGate and others. And now you can send an email to a researcher, and they can send you a PDF in return.

What are other countries doing about open access?

In Europe, PlanS has been proposed. It aims to require results from all studies funded by public grants to be published in open access journals. It’s received criticism largely because it didn’t involve the scientific community. It was developed by The European Commission, the President of the Science Europe association, and a group of national funding agencies and the scientific council of the European Research Council. They didn’t include scientific unions or scientific groups.

What might other options be?

People in some disciplines have an open review model. You research something, you put it on the web, and everyone can comment on it. After six months you can revise. The question is, who voluntarily reviews papers that have been put on the web? Will the review process happen?

Personally, I think the hybrid model of open access has served us well. Maybe it should evolve into another model. What that might be, I don’t know, but it should be a discussion by the scientific groups, and the general public should have a voice in that.

What do you hope to see going forward?

Scientific publishing is so important. As researchers, we’re evaluated based on it, and exchange of information is based on it. Yet it’s not much talked about. We should have discussions on it at the university level in relation to what other states and countries are doing, in relation to our budgets, in relation to the exchange of scientific information. I believe it’s too important to leave it to the publishers and the administrators. It’s affecting us as scientists.