The (short) Van Noorden article provides a useful overview of the state of academic publishing from the business side of the operation and how increasing calls among many in the hard sciences for open access journals are being met by the academic publishing community. On the one hand, there is a strong theoretical bent among many in academia for open access to literature in the sciences—it is in some ways antithetical to scientific progress to limit access to information. On the other hand, there are realities of publishing: costs, for one, and the other being the traditional gate-keeper role academic journals and their rigorous peer review processes provide and the prestige they impart as a by-product.
The first of these is no less complicated than the latter. Unfortunately, Van Noorden notes, it’s difficult to entirely gauge the economics of moving toward more widespread adoption of open access online only journals in that few operations are entirely forthcoming about the costs associated with all aspects of publishing—from accepting submissions, conducting peer review, to printing and distribution. Most of the costs tend to paid for out of library budgets, which pay for subscriptions, and/or other academic organizations, which publish the journals as one aspect of their larger mission. (I was at the Midwest Political Science Association conference this weekend, which affiliates itself with the American Journal of Political Science, one of the top journals in my discipline.)
The prestige and gatekeeper issue is no less difficult to entangle. Van Noorden mentions the possibility of post-publication efforts to sort quality research from the rest—a sort of crowdsourcing of quality. This is obviously problematic though, and often important works will slip through the cracks, even when published in top journals, simply because they are ahead of their time. These articles are arguably more likely to be discovered later if they have the imprimatur of a prestigious journal attached.
It’s not clear to me where the future lies. Certainly the higher production costs associated with printed journals no longer makes sense when large percentages (majorities?) consume journal articles in digital format now anyway. But at several hundred dollars per article in costs regardless, it’s not evident that there is an economic model to sustain the traditional peer review and formal journal publishing process.