“experiment, noun. An action or operation undertaken in order to discover something unknown, to test a hypothesis, or establish or illustrate some known truth” — Oxford English Dictionary
This week, Cornell University joined four other universities in pledging to provide funds for open access publishers. The pledge, described as a “compact,” commits institutions to
underwriting reasonable publication charges for articles written by its faculty and published in fee-based open-access journals and for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds.
The details of this compact are important, although it leaves specific decision-making to each member institution. For example, it does not specify what is meant by “reasonable” charges. It is also designed to be administered as a fund of last resort: faculty are expected to utilize other sources of funding before applying for institutional reimbursement.
The argument for creating these funds is clearly about fairness — as embodied in the name, “Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity.” If institutions support subscription-access forms of publication, they should also support free access through author payments. Stuart Shieber and others have repeatedly used the phrase “leveling the playing field” to embody this principle.
The Cornell University Library issued its own narrative yesterday, which relies on different rationales. It recognizes the valuable services provided by publishers in terms of managing the certification and distribution services, although it clearly sides with one particular business model, author-pays publishing.
The authors of the Cornell’s compact view their open access publication fund as an “experiment” and, given that this service is designed to help support scientists, this frame will undoubtedly be viewed as acceptable.
But is this really an experiment? If the creation of a funding line to support a particular form of publishing is designed as a hypothesis, what result are they expecting? What constitutes a successful or failed experiment?
- Is the experiment a success when the funds are expended completely within a short period of time requiring the library to find additional publication funds or deny requests? Or is that a failure?
- Is money left over in the fund at the end of the fiscal year a success? Or is that a failure, considering that these funds could have been used for purchasing other sources of information like books and journals?
The language of the Cornell compact is schizophrenic, using words like “compact” and “pledge” together with “experiment.” Moreover, it still echoes the religious fervor and proselytism found early in the open access debate, as illustrated in last paragraph:
Be an Advocate
If you believe that publishing in open-access journals in order to provide unfettered access to your research is important, please let us know. We are looking for researchers who will encourage others to publish their work in this manner
We should view this compact in its simplest terms — a form of advocacy for a particular publishing model — and drop the scientific objectivity connoted in words like “experiment.” If this is about fairness, let us talk about how this new model will help or hinder who is allowed to participate in generating new knowledge. If this is about access, let’s talk about whether this type of publishing results in disseminating scientific results to more readers. If this debate is about economics, let’s talk about whether Cornell and the four other signatory institutions will save money under this model.