Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Professor N J Hitchin, University of Oxford

  What are the consequences of increasing numbers of open-access journals, for example for the operation of the Research Assessment Exercise and other selection processes? Should the Government support such a trend and, if so, how?

  The open-access unrefereed archive (the UK mirror) is a prime resource for mathematical papers. Not all mathematicians put their stuff there, not all know about it, but many of us download papers from there as a matter of course, and a number of RAE submissions were of this nature. Being unrefereed, the results may be plain wrong (which also happens in journals, it has to be said) and also the good, the bad and the ugly all sit next to each other. A journal puts a quality and accuracy assessment on its contents, but in practical terms as often as not I still download from the arXiv instead of going to the library to look at the journal. If the library subscribes to the journal I will go first to the electronic journal-version, but failing that go to the arXiv.

  From this standpoint a paper accepted by a good journal has a quality mark placed on it, but then one feels free to access the web version without hesitation. Some journals try and stop any further alterations of the arXiv version after acceptance and modification by the refereeing process but I can't see how the internet can be regulated to stop the final version appearing there.

  For the RAE, the problem is one of assessing quality of open-access unrefereed articles; panel members have no time to do the refereeing job themselves.

  The model of open access publication where payment is made on submission could have consequences for disciplines such as mathematics which are not big grant-earners and also for independent researchers—latter-day Einsteins in their patent offices. It could act as a deterrent to submitting papers to those journals (which could be good or bad—there are undoubtedly too many journals). If the free arXiv continues, though, then worldwide dissemination of knowledge would not be affected.

January 2004

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