Walled Culture has written numerous posts about the promise and problems of open access. An important editorial in the journal Web Ecology raises an issue for open access that I’ve not seen mentioned before. It concerns the fraught issue of rebuttal articles, which offer fact-based criticism of already-published academic papers:
Critical comments on published articles vary in importance; they can simply point to an aspect absent from a published article or offer an alternative interpretation or perspective. In some cases, they can point to fundamental flaws that undermine the published conclusions. The nomenclature of these – comments, replies, rebuttals – is variable, but their importance to scientific progress is unquestionable.
Rebuttal articles are a vital part of the scientific publishing process, since they help weed out mistakes made by other researchers, usually honest errors, but sometimes not. As the Web Ecology editorial notes, writing rebuttal articles is hard enough because of their necessarily confrontational nature. But anyone wanting to publish rebuttals in open access titles that are funded through article processing charges (APCs), generally paid by the researcher’s academic institution, has to contend with an additional problem. In this case, as well as writing cogent explanations why published research is faulty, people who wish to publish a rebuttal must generally pay an APC to do so. The Web Ecology editorial gives details of a particular case where several scientists spent considerable time and effort rebutting an article in the open access journal Ecosphere, about spiders that allegedly preyed on bats:
Their rebuttal article was peer-reviewed in Ecosphere, where it was accepted for publication (Daniel Montesinos has seen copies of the submitted rebuttal and of its acceptance letter). However, the authors of this reply were requested to pay an APC of USD 2100/GBP 1300/EUR 1700 for a rebuttal article that largely disproved the original publication. The authors of the reply, who had altruistically devoted significant time to writing their rebuttal, refused to pay. They felt that they were doing the journal – and science – a service and that it was unreasonable to charge them for it.
Because these authors’ APC request was denied, the original Ecosphere article, which they claimed was flawed, remained uncontested, while the rebuttal was not published there. Instead, the editors of Web Ecology stepped in and published it themselves. As they comment:
Clearly, charging authors for brief, well-founded criticism of published articles creates a highly problematic disincentive to fruitful scientific discussion. This uncontroversial stance should enjoy universal support, but it currently does not. This might be excused as a simple oversight. Historically, this had never been an issue because most journals did not charge any publication fees. However, today more than 40 % of all Web of Science publications are open access (Basson et al., 2022). It is time to consider the damaging effects of charging authors for critical comments in open-access journals.
Drawing on their experience here, they go on to make an important point:
When a clear error is detected, it is for the best interest of all to find a reasonable and ethical solution in the shortest possible time. For platinum/diamond open-access journals, this is not an issue. Web Ecology has charged no APCs since its creation in 2000, which shows the viability of making science truly available to the whole scientific community at a moderate cost while maintaining the highest scientific and publishing standards.
As Walled Culture has written, diamond open access journals (also known as platinum open access) charge neither the people who read their papers, nor the researchers who publish them. Instead, they are funded through other sources, something made easier by the minimalist kind of publishing that they typically engage in. The fact that they can publish rebuttals quickly and without demanding a payment to do so is yet another reason they are the best form of open access available.
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