John Staddon writes for the Martin Center about problems plaguing science publishing.

Researchers have been grumbling about the state of scientific publishing for years. Now, rumor has it that the Trump administration (yes, those science-haters!) may be trying to fix at least one problem: access to reports of government-funded research.

The rumored proposal will require free, immediate access to all reports of government-funded scientific research. The rumor is credible enough that an association of 210 academic and research libraries has written to the president in support of the idea. The research-publication system is a mess, and open access would be one small step toward a fix. …

… Who needs those expensive print journals? Why do we have them at all?

The answer is search, vetting—and history. Researchers need some way to narrow down their search for relevant papers, papers they need to consult and cite as part of their own research. The internet by itself just provides unfiltered, unsorted access. And science bosses, from academic deans to industry executives, almost always lack sufficient detailed knowledge to evaluate accurately the science done by their employees. They need some way to judge the importance of published work.

The cry goes up: Is it peer-reviewed? The big science publishers—Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley, Springer, Macmillan, etc.—publish journals with respectable lists of editors, associate editors, and (presumably, since these names are usually not revealed) the peer reviewers the editors choose. Hence, they retain their position and are able to charge swingeing costs for journals on niche topics. The cost and open-access problems persist.

It’s not clear that there is a top-down solution to those problems. Nature and Science will retain their historical eminence as “positional goods”—like elites in other spheres. Whether they can be coerced to allow open access remains to be seen. Many other prestigious journals are also pretty secure.