HR 3699, the Research Works Act, has drawn a line in the sand between open access advocates and commercial publishing houses. But where does that leave the not-for-profit publisher?
In October of 2010, comedian Jon Stewart called for a “Rally to Restore Sanity”, this in reaction to perceived political extremism. It was an attempt to provide a voice for the silent, reasoned majority. In his speech at the rally, Stewart spoke out against the divisive rhetoric and the habit of labeling the opposition with overly emotional terms. He spoke of a nation that is busy, often too busy to attend political rallies, but a nation that holds a diversity of viewpoints and that somehow manages to peacefully coexist.
Given the level of rhetoric flying about these days concerning academic publishing and the Research Works Act, this situation sounds familiar to many of us in the publishing community. Instead of being forced into a divisive, us-against-them position, is there instead some middle ground available for the not-for-profit publisher? Can we express strong support for open access publishing while at the same time taking care not to destroy the funding we generate, which is used to directly support the research community and research itself?
Because this is such a seemingly contentious subject, I would first like to make this clear — the thoughts expressed in this blog entry are the author’s personal opinions, and do not necessarily represent those of any other Scholarly Kitchen author, the SSP, my employer, nor any other group with which I’m associated.
With that out of the way, let’s make things clear — the Research Works Act is a meritless piece of legislation, one that appears to exist because of a terrible misreading of the reality of the current political situation. Those writing federal policy on access to research seem to have no interest in tearing down an entire industry. Their goal is not to reduce revenue, but instead to increase revenue through the creation of new businesses.
Federal mandates for the release of research results are meant to drive new ventures, to find further value, and further economic stimuli. Read the recent White House Request for Information — it’s all about how to create new value and new business. The smart publisher should see this as opportunity, not threat. Take a look at MacMillan’s Digital Science group and their selective investment in new technologies for an example of how it’s done.
Regardless of intent, the only thing the Research Works Act is likely to accomplish is to galvanize those at the other end of the spectrum — to empower the opposition to those who proposed it.
For the not-for-profit publisher — the research society dependent on its journal, the research institution that uses a journal to fund research — extremism in either direction makes no sense. If one truly believes in one’s mission, then both the seemingly contradictory ideas of expanding access and preserving revenue streams are necessary and compatible. The goal should be to find ways to expand access while at the same time continuing to fund the important activities a society or institution provides.
Some suggestions toward the most glaring problems with the current debate:
Can we do away with the demagoguery?
In the New York Times, open access advocate Michael Eisen declares that, “if the taxpayers paid for it, they own it.” This seems a bit odd coming from an employee of the University of California system. According to their last report, the UC system makes greater than $92 million per year from technology transfer — essentially putting the results of their research behind a patent paywall. It’s unclear how much of that $92 million-plus is the result of federally funded research, or when we taxpayers can expect a refund check.
This argument is typical of the over-the-top rhetoric meant to inflame emotions: “Publishers are stealing from the taxpayer!” Examined carefully, the argument holds no water. Try explaining your ownership the next time you try to board the taxpayer-funded subway, or go to an event at your local taxpayer-funded sports stadium.
But the absurdity goes both ways. Those calling for the Research Works Act have no data proving that mandates for opening access after an embargo period harms the subscription business. If the NIH’s 12-month embargo were so detrimental, where are the resultant decreases in journal revenues? How can you declare something harmful and try to ban it without actually providing any data on its actual impact?
And isn’t it contradictory to support legislation meant to limit open access while at the same time trying to jump on the PLoS ONE megajournal profit bandwagon? Is this something that’s going to destroy your business or an exciting new revenue stream?
“Profit” is not a dirty word.
I’ve discussed this elsewhere in detail, but to recap: Any system where rewards for success are not allowed is a system that is likely to stagnate. The federal government seems to want to reward innovation to drive progress. The research community should feel the same way — if someone can create a system that increases access to scholarly material at a reasonable cost, shouldn’t they be rewarded for this? Competition has driven many great achievements, it should not be something to fear.
There are, in fact, more than two publishers in existence.
This polemic in the Guardian declares that “academic publishers gave up all pretence on being on the side of the scientists.” That seems a bit confusing, given that many academic publishers are scientists. Is a scientific society run by scientists, employing a scientist to publish a science journal in order to fund activities that benefit scientists, really the “enemy of science”?
In many recent rhetorical blasts, one company, Elsevier, becomes representative of all academic publishers. Well, all academic publishers save one, the Public Library of Science. The argument becomes much simpler and more emotionally charged when the entire battle comes down to Darth Vader versus Luke Skywalker.
But reality is more nuanced than that, and the publishing landscape is diverse. Which leads to the next point . . .
Perhaps we should judge a journal by its owner, rather than its publisher.
Authors nearly always choose journals based on getting the maximum career credit for their published article. But there are times where different criteria are used, and times where an author has a choice between several equivalent journals.
Both the New York Times and Guardian articles suggest that PLoS is an (the only?) acceptable place for your publications. If we assume that journals are going to turn a profit, and that the funds generated are going to different places, then perhaps authors should think further about where to spend those author fees and who they’re most interested in supporting. Choosing a journal solely because it is fully open access may mean that you’re still contributing to the earnings of a so-called “enemy of science.”
A journal owned by a commercial publisher generates profits that go that publisher’s shareholders. But not-for-profit publishers send profits to a wide variety of recipients.
A journal owned by a research society makes money that is then used to pay for the work that society does. If you submit articles to a society-owned journal, review for them, subscribe to the journal or serve on their editorial board, you’re directly supporting your own research community. Your author fees come right back to your own field and pay for your annual meeting, scholarship, education, lobbying and all the other things a society does on your behalf.
A journal owned by a research institution makes money that is used to support research at that institution. Submitting articles, reviewing, subscribing and editing all makes a direct contribution to funding research. Similarly, a journal owned by a university press contributes directly to supporting academic activities at that university.
PLoS itself is something of an interesting case — a not-for-profit that is essentially a closed loop. When PLoS makes a profit, that money is reinvested in PLoS itself, rather than returned to the community. It is used to support PLoS’ publishing efforts, particularly its higher-end journals which are not self-sustainable, and to drive PLoS’ superb and interesting publishing experiments.
Really it comes down to your priorities. If changing the publishing landscape is your priority, then PLoS certainly makes sense as a first choice because that’s where your funds will be applied. But a paleontologist may be more interested in supporting the paleontology community than in paying for the publication of PLoS Medicine. For that researcher, publishing in a journal owned by his own society may be a stronger draw.
It gets confusing because many research institutions and societies partner with commercial or not-for-profit publishers for their journals. Usually in these cases, the publisher provides the platform and support for a percentage of profits, and the society receives the lion’s share of the revenue generated. So for that paleontologist mentioned above, which is preferable?
- Publishing an open access article in a Springer owned BioMed Central journal, where all revenue goes to a commercial publisher?
- Publishing an open access article in a PLoS journal, where all revenue goes to support PLoS’ publishing efforts?
- Publishing in a society-owned journal that is published by (gasp) Elsevier, where most of the revenue goes to the society and back to the paleontology community, while some percentage goes to a commercial publisher?
The individual researcher needs to make that call based on his own priorities. It’s not a simple black and white choice.
That subtle and nuanced set of choices doesn’t make for a good soundbite. But it’s reflective of the real world for the average researcher. Most scientists chose their career because they’re interested in doing science, and for many, concerns about public access to research fall somewhere lower on their list of priorities. Like Jon Stewart’s busy Americans, they want to spend their time doing experiments, rather than engaging in scorched earth tactics over policy matters. The researchers running societies and their journals aren’t volunteering their time because they expect to get rich from doing so. Most researchers have not lost site of what’s important, but those at either end of the spectrum are the ones generating all the noise.
That noise needs to be put in perspective. Right now, the mainstream press is presenting a distorted image of science publishing and inflammatory rhetoric is ruling the day. The mainstream of science needs to be heard, and the publishers who are part of and contribute directly to the research community need to be heard as well.