I find myself becoming increasingly troubled by the popular phrase “access to publicly-funded research,” which is commonly invoked by advocates of open access (OA) solutions to the problem of access to scientific journal articles. Search Google for that phrase, and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results: statements from the Alliance for Taxpayer Access (“American taxpayers are entitled to the research they’ve paid for”), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (“Governments should improve access to publicly funded research “), and the New York State Higher Education Initiative (“Support open access to public funded research”), among many others.
But there’s a serious problem with that phrase and its variants, popular as they may be. The problem is that it’s misleading: there is no such thing as “access to research.” What those who invoke it actually want is public access to the published versions of papers that result from publicly-funded research. The latter, clunkier phrase exposes a reality that the former, sleeker one obscures — the large and expensive gap that lies between the completion of a scientific experiment (which is what funding agencies have historically provided funding for, and which is what is commonly meant by the term “research”), and the creation of a publishable product based on that research.
Once the research has been done, two things have to happen in order to create the desired product: the resulting data has to be digested and turned into a document, and the document has to be edited and turned into something publishable. It’s technically possible to bypass the second of those two processes, at least temporarily, and provide public access to a preliminary version of the research report; this happens every day on the arXiv, for example. But these are not the documents to which OA advocates want the public to have access. OA, whether Green or Gold, is about giving people free access to peer-reviewed research journal articles.
The processes of preparing research reports for publication and making resulting documents available to readers cost money, of course, as does the process of keeping access available on an ongoing basis. None of those costs has traditionally been borne by the agencies that fund research; instead, they have usually been borne by subscribers to scientific journals. This arrangement has led to some severe problems, most notable among them the serials pricing crisis. Quick-rising journal prices, combined with stagnant or declining library budgets, mean that libraries can provide less and less access to published content from year to year (despite the temporary and artificial increases afforded by models such as the Big Deal, which is manifestly unsustainable). This is a real and severe problem, and OA offers an obvious solution to it: once access is free the serials crisis, or at least one manifestation of it, is solved.
However, a model under which the costs of editorial preparation, publication, and permanent maintenance are transferred from journal subscribers to funding agencies carries with it problems as well, and in my experience OA advocates are often unwilling to entertain serious discussion of those problems. One rhetorical mechanism for avoiding such discussion is the insistence that the costs of publication are inseparable from the costs of research.
One large funding agency, the Wellcome Trust, makes this insistence a part of its public posture with the phrase “(we believe) that dissemination costs are research costs.” Other commentators have gone so far as to assert that unless a research paper has been formally published, the research has not happened. Jean-Claude Guédon is one of the more prominent OA advocates to take this stance; in a 30 August, 2011 posting to the SCHOLCOMM listserv (as of this writing not yet archived at http://listserv.uic.edu/archives/scholcomm.html), he asserted that “research without dissemination is not research,” proceeding from that premise to the position that “hence, dissemination is an integral part of research and, therefore, of research costs.”
This statement is worth unpacking because, if taken seriously by policymakers and funding agencies, it has serious implications both for access and for research itself.
There is a syllogism behind statements like “dissemination costs are research costs” and “research without dissemination is not research.” The syllogism is as follows:
- The public has provided funds for research.
- Dissemination is an integral part of research.
- The public has funded dissemination.
The problem with this logic is (or ought to be) obvious: while one may play with the definition of “research” in whatever way one wishes, there is an intractable fiscal reality at work that remains unaffected by word games, and that reality is that funding agencies have not traditionally funded “research” in this elastic, postmodern sense, but rather “research” in the sense implied by both colloquial usage and most dictionary definitions: the systematic inquiry into a question or hypothesis. The production of an article after a research project is complete is not only conceptually separable from the research itself, but more importantly, involves costs that are subsequent and additional to the costs incurred by the research project. To argue that “dissemination costs are research costs” is to conflate the two categories of cost by means of rhetorical sleight-of-hand. It is also to smuggle a moral or “should” argument (“the public should not have to pay for access”) inside the Trojan horse of a fallacious “is” statement (“the public has already paid for access, since dissemination is an integral part of research, and the public paid for the research”)
Funding agencies can choose to underwrite the costs of dissemination as well as the costs of research itself. Some already do so; the Wellcome Trust currently allocates nearly $5 million annually to cover Gold OA charges, and in 2005 (the most recent data I was able to find), the NIH estimated that it “pays over $30 million annually in direct costs for publication and other page charges in grants to its investigators.” $35 million is serious money, and it means a serious tradeoff — money that is redirected from the support of actual research to the underwriting of OA dissemination thereby becomes unavailable for the support of research projects. The result is both broader public access (arguably a very good thing) and fewer research findings (a potentially very bad thing).
Now, I don’t mean for a moment to imply that such a tradeoff is necessarily bad — it may well be that it is, in fact, good, and that humanity would benefit more from broader and easier access to less research than vice versa. But it does seem to me that the question needs to be addressed, and addressed in a rigorous, public, and above-board way. What I find worrying is rhetoric that seeks to prevent discussion of the question by implying that the tradeoff does not in fact exist — that funding dissemination as well as research involves no redirection of money from one to the other, because the two are somehow inseparable. In the real world, you can’t spend the same dollar on both research projects and dissemination, and that means that when funding agencies begin funding dissemination they are inevitably going to end up funding less research. Proposing a new definition of “research” does not magically make this tradeoff disappear.
Pointing this out does not tend to endear one to those who are deeply invested in advancing the cause of OA at all costs. When I brought up the reality of such tradeoffs on one listserv recently, I ended up embroiled in a (shall we say) spirited argument on the topic by private email with one OA advocate, who finally terminated the discussion by suggesting that I’m too young to know what I’m talking about. (Somewhere, I suspect, my college-student daughter is snorting with mirth and preparing another hilarious remark about my gray hair.) Those who respond this way seem to see discussion of tradeoffs itself as an attack on the goals of OA. But the question is not whether more and freer access is a good thing; of course it is. The question — and I believe it is an urgent one — is this: does the world benefit more from free access to $35 million less research, or from $35 million more research? I don’t pretend to have a universal answer to that question, nor do I assume that the answer will be the same for every type of research.
What I do know is this: playing word games in order to hide the reality of a tradeoff does not make the tradeoff go away. It only prevents rational and thoughtful decision-making, and if there’s one thing the world of scholarly communication needs right now, it’s more, not less, rational and thoughtful decision-making.