Open access journals in ecology and what to make of Ecosphere?

I recall talking to a very prominent ecologist, perhaps the seminal ecologist of the last 20-years, when he visited Utah this past spring. Over lunch, the talk of open-access (OA) journals came up and the grad students in the conversation immediately began advocating for more open-source journals. Then the "buts" rolled in from a few people. "They're good, but, they charge just to submit..." "They have their place, but they accept just about anything..." "...But nobody publishes in those - except second-rate authors..." "I like IEE, but they don't even have peer-review..." and so on, and so forth.  Famous ecologist even said, "...the impression that anyone can get it and papers are submitted after being rejected in traditional outlets shows that Ecosphere is second-rate." I was floored. Here is the author of numerous texts, hundreds of highy-read and cited papers, and he was saying OA is, is...BS? Because anyone can get it? Really? Seriously? I was astounded and disappointed at how a few students quickly agreed with him. Like sheep, they flocked to the opinion of a really famous guy, and then seemingly drew their line in the sand. Welcome to Bummerville, even while sitting next to a famous guy (famous for an ecologist - not like Snooki or anything).

For the unacquainted, there has been a push to make author-pays, free-to-read journals across much of science these last few years. Ecology and Society, Ecosphere, and Ideas in Ecology and Evolution are all OA ecology journals, while the Public Library of Science (PLoS One) has numerous journals based on subject matter and discipline, including ecology. These titles aren't a part of the big bad publishing industry (sort of) and with the exception of Ecosphere, they aren't even affiliated with professional societies.

I tend to think of these journals as very important to ecological science, scientific practice in general and the public for numerous reasons:

1. They bring science that is commonly done with public money, on public land, and/or at public universities to, well, the general public (as long as they have internet access, but that's another story...)...and for free. This increases access to complex science, science that still needs communicated rapidly in better media than the peer-reviewed publication, but it gives an idea of the final product to at least some of the stakeholders, from agency personnel to Joe Libertarian who wants to see where his tax dollars have been spent (and perhaps write a letter about it...).

2. These journals encourage scientists to think outside of the historic "system." While tenure committees may have historically been looking for that Science or Nature paper, I tend to think that they are now examining how science merges with application, how many citations are conferred and how good the science is, not merely where the paper landed, and what impact the journal had last year. I may be naive, but the old guard of academic gatekeepers and elitists is shrinking with every retirement and the people replacing them came of age in the information era, with a bit of Google pumping through their veins. The culture of research has shifted from the gate to the open border: free insight for everyone lets everyone be more informed and go through the world with greater insights and range.

3. These journals have the ability not only to change what science is emphasized (high impact factor vs. quality and intended audience), but also the submission, peer-review and publishing processes. These processes are perceived to be broken by many, including the editorial staff at IEE and numerous Ecolog participants. How can the scientific community fix these if they continue sending papers out to Blackwell, Wiley, Springer, etc? These companies have their place and certainly produce good products (albeit not cheap and definitely not free), which is why they remain in business, but they are a product of the system and will continue to remain as such because it is profitable. The drivers of change will be on an entirely different bus - probably OA.

Morgan Ernest, Ethan White, Jarrett Byrnes and Jeremy Fox have all been sorting out the place of Ecosphere relative to the traditional ESA journals, Ecology, Ecological Applications, etc. and to some extent OA over at Jabberwocky Ecology. Jeremy has also posted his own piece at Dynamic Ecology. Their discussion of both Ecosphere and OA have encouraged me to consider where OA fits, what purpose it serves and whether it is being fully utilized (my gut instinct: it isn't fully utilized anywhere...yet). I hope this discussion continues in real time even as the authors' posts shrink back in the queue of their respective blogs. Thus far, all of the authors and commenters make good points (then again, they're all really bloody smart and prolific, so chaff was unlikely...), and hopefully a few more people will jump in and continue the discussion.

I'm still curious what others, especially those in the applied realm of ecology think of the OA journals. I personally think that I'm going to be forced to publish in journals that track my subdisciplines of ecology - applied plant community ecology and restoration, wetland, riparian and forest management, ecology and restoration. Simply put, it seems that the OA community, including both advocates and journals, has forgotten that ecology and environmental science have application, and inherently the papers deemed most worthy of running in the OA journals are generally basic in nature. Is this because applied ecologists submit exclusively to their disciplinary journals, or is it because the OA concept is not for science that has rapid application in environmental management? Science/ecology - it's a theoretical thing? Is it the applied researchers, the journals, the OA advocates or a perfect storm of all three that keeps the basic research at the forefront of OA? I can think of a lot of non-profit groups, local land management agencies and informed citizens who would benefit greatly from having free access to work like that in Ecological Restoration, Restoration Ecology, Wetlands, River Research and Applications or Natural Areas Journal, just to name a few mid-level applied players. So what's the place of OA beyond the ivory tower and who is benefitting from this push, if not the applied ecology, restoration, conservation and environmental policy communities?

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