Publishers, of course, had an answer to these various institutional complaints. Their function, they said, was to provide ‘added value‘. They took in the literary creations of researchers, polished them into an acceptable form for reading, and then circulated them to potential users. Above all, they provided the quality control mechanism which ensured that only acceptable research was published. The control mechanism usually runs as follows. Papers are submitted by authors to editors, who may well be fellow-academics, who, in turn, farm them out to (mainly academic) referees. Most of the academics, however, provide their input either cheaply, or free of charge. From an institutional viewpoint, therefore, the publishers’ arguments actually bolstered the institutions own case: the quality control mechanism is parasitic since the institutions pay the people involved. (To be fair, publishers have a case for arguing that the relationship is actually symbiotic.) However, everybody - authors publishers, institutions, readers - all assert that peer review is essential when publishing research. Any new method of publishing must take account of this. So it is worth looking at the activity a little more closely.
Quality control has become the shibboleth of research publication. Publish in an unrefereed journal and you join the ranks of the damned (or at least the ignored). Yet the hardline form such control tends to take currently is relatively recent. Thus, back in the dark ages when I started research, a number of high-prestige journals had no external referees: all the reviewing was done by the editor(s). (Indeed, one journal that had used external referees ceased to do so for a time because they rejected a couple of ground-breaking papers that the editors would have accepted.) The point is that you don’t usually need to be an expert in each small area of research in order to decide whether a paper is publishable or not. Separating the wheat from the chaff is not all that difficult. What the expert can do is to suggest improvements to the paper. If the worry is about publishing poor research, then cursory editing can do that quite well, and is a good deal more cost-effective.
In some disciplines, acceptable research is sufficiently well defined that assessments of the accept/reject sort are a minor problem. The obvious Open Access example is arXiv. (May I note, in passing, that not all the contributions to arXiv subsequently appear in journals and, in any case, many of the citations by other authors are to the online version. Anecdotally, from discussions I have had, I would suspect that arXiv could continue to exist without a journal-based back-up.) It has been said that there are two types of science - physics and stamp-collecting. It is true that the arXiv approach might not work so well for the latter as for the former. But its success within its field does suggest that greater flexibility in achieving quality control is both desirable and feasible.
Then there is the problem of bad research on the Internet. I don’t actually see this as an important question for research journals. Most online ‘bad research’ lies outside the normal system of academic communication. It is, unfortunately, often more readable than any research paper. Hence, members of the general public are attracted to it. I doubt whether either tightening or relaxing quality control in academic publishing would have much effect on public interest. Gresham’s law applied to this situation suggests not.
So, to return to the original question, can Open Access provide all the added value, and especially the quality control, that traditional publishers claim to provide? The immediate answer is obviously that it can, since a variety of Open Access journals are already available. But like any other journals they have to be funded - by subscription, or by tapping the authors, or in some other way. From this viewpoint, the whole thing simply boils down to which is the more cost-efficient method of publishing - the existing system or a new Open Access system. But, of course, this over-simplifies. Researchers by and large are not interested in the routine of organising research communication. In addition, most researchers don’t like rapid change in the system - they have too much intellectual capital tied up in their publications. I fancy, in consequence, that, for the foreseeable future, publishers will continue to be involved as intermediaries. However, their financial pickings will decrease. A word of encouragement to anyone currently in their fifties, and involved in commercial journal publishing. Take as your motto some words from Dr. Johnson: ‘These things will last our time, and we may leave posterity to shift for themselves‘..
Actually, I find all this a little disappointing. Journals - that is bundles of research papers - were devised as an efficient way of distributing research using print. With computer-based handling, the individual paper is a more sensible unit to use. Maybe the question we should be concentrating on, therefore, is - when can we do away with journals altogether?. Incidentally, all our discussion has been about science. I reckon the more interesting questions now are about the humanities. What about open access to scholarly monographs, for example?