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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:

  1. The public has provided funds for research.
  2. Dissemination is an integral part of research.

Therefore,

  1. 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.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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Discussion

24 Thoughts on "OA Rhetoric, Economics, and the Definition of "Research""

Kent, You said: “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.”

Yes they are.

Stevan Harnad’s article that you link to immediately after this extract makes this clear: what’s being deposited in the ‘green road to open access’ is ‘authors’ self-archived plain-vanilla OA versions’. Yes, these are ‘full-texts of peer-reviewed research journal articles’ but provided by the authors after peer review and prior to publisher value-adding.

It’s an important distinction to make because it shows that providing open access need cost the author nothing while recognising that what the publisher provides does add cost. The widespread emphasis on gold open access publishing has fooled many people into thinking that the two cannot be extricated. But that’s exactly what green OA does. I think your post will helpfully prompt people to think more carefully about this, and other implications. Without the valve of green OA, untrammelled gold OA publishing will result in, as you say,”both broader public access (arguably a very good thing) and fewer research findings (a potentially very bad thing).” In other words, switch from the ‘serials crisis’ to an ‘author crisis’.

Sorry, Rick. I’ve obviously read too many of Kent’s postings on this blog.

That’s okay, Steve, it’s an easy mistake to make, since Kent and I have the same last name and are both so dashingly handsome.

Regarding the arXiv: I think you slightly misread the sentence you quoted from my posting. I wasn’t saying that the arXiv has no OA content. I said that scientists provide public access to preliminary versions of research reports, and gave the arXiv as an example of one place where that happens. OA, however, is not about giving the public access to preliminary research reports, but rather to (in Harnad’s words) “peer-reviewed research journal articles.” Some of those are found in the arXiv as well.

Thanks for catching that error, Richard! What I actually intended to do was link “Wellcome Trust” to the organization’s website at http://www.wellcome.ac.uk. Instead, I accidentally duplicated my link from the phrase “manifestly unsustainable” (two paragraphs earlier) to your “Demise of the Big Deal” blog posting.

Communication is the last step of the Scientific Method. If not published, research has never happened. There is no such thing as “access to research” without the access to the final version of the communication.

This is far from true, Bora. First, most industrial and applied research is used in-house, not published (including most of mine). Then too, a researcher may communicate findings in other ways, such as conferences and personal communications. Finally, subscription journals are a form of access. The issue here is just who pays, not whether communication occurs.

Steve, by saying “Yes they are. Stevan Harnad’s article that you link to immediately after this extract makes this clear: what’s being deposited in the ‘green road to open access’ is ‘authors’ self-archived plain-vanilla OA versions’. Yes, these are ‘full-texts of peer-reviewed research journal articles’ but provided by the authors after peer review and prior to publisher value-adding.” you actually imply that the publisher adds value AFTER peer review.
As far as my experience goes, however, the publisher usually pays for the manuscript submission system and the Editorial staff that handles a manuscript before, during and after peer review. So I’d say that Green OA is actually profiting from publishers’ money, if we’re honestly looking at it. It may be at no cost to the author, but it definitely comes at a price to the publisher.

Sarah

Of course, that kind of editorial management system is readily and freely available for anyone from the Open Journals System of the Public Knowledge Project. This is widely used by OA journal publishers based at universities. So, management of the peer-review process doesn’t necessarily have to occur using the staff and software of a publisher; indeed, in tradition print journal publishing, this function was not managed by a publisher at all.

In the US at least, a rather substantial percentage of many research grants goes to “overhead”; I’ve always been curious, but have never been able to find out, what percentage of overhead costs go to libraries at the grant-receiving institution. Could this be an example of how agencies are already (indirectly) funding academic publishing?

Andy, that’s a good point and a good question. In fact, the amount of granted overhead money that goes to libraries varies greatly from institution to institution — in some cases, I believe, none of it goes to the library at all; in most cases, some percentage of it does. (In the case of my own institution, we get a flat dollar amount every year that comes from overhead monies, and we have no idea what percentage it represents. Obviously, the percentage fluctuates with the amount of grant funding secured each year.)

To the extent that a library gets overhead funding and uses it to pay for subscriptions, then yes — that’s an example of another way in which granting agencies may redirect support from research itself to the dissemination of papers based on research. It’s a somewhat muddier example, though, as some degree of “overhead” is necessary in order for the research itself to be performed: you can’t conduct a lab experiment without a lab and without an experimenter, whereas you can perform a lab experiment without publishing a formal paper in a journal afterwards (pax Jean-Claude Guedon and Bora Zivkovic).

While the $30 million that NIH estimates it spent on direct costs for publication and other page charges in grants to its investigators in 2005 sounds like “serious money,” it has to be considered in context of what NIH spent on research grants that year. The spreadsheet at http://report.nih.gov/budget_and_spending/index.aspx called “Grants and Contracts: Number of awards and total funding, by budget mechanism and Institute/Center” lists NIH grant and contract expenditures for 2001-2010. For 2005, NIH spent $20,206,478,806 on 47,345 research grants (cells D139- E139). That $30 million represents 0.15% of their grant expenditures. So yes, an extra 70 average research grants could have been expended instead, but then it would have been more difficult for the 47,345 other research grants to have been published at all. That’s a tradeoff I think most rational people can live with.

As an esteemed colleague of mine used to say to publishers, when they’d tell us happily that their prices were “only going up by 5% this year!”: “We don’t pay invoices in percentages. We pay in dollars.”

It’s possible to make $30 million sound like either a small or a large amount of money, depending on the context you put it in. One way to make it sound smaller is to present it as a percentage of a much larger amount of money. But the fact remains that (by your calculation) redirecting $30m of NIH funding eliminates about 70 research projects. I’m happy to concede that many rational people will feel that losing 70 research projects is a reasonable tradeoff for the benefit of providing free public access to those that do get funded — what I object to are attempts to use manipulative rhetoric to hide the loss of those projects.

However, if you want to focus on percentages of funds being redirected, consider the Wellcome Trust’s public statement that “to provide OA to all the research papers it will fund will cost between 1-2% of its annual research budget” (http://slidesha.re/n2H1v8). That’s a much smaller number of dollars, but a much higher proportion of research funds being redirected. Percentages and dollar amounts will vary from agency to agency, of course.

Either way, though, my argument is not that the tradeoff is necessarily bad — only that the tradeoff is real, and that we won’t make good decisions by pretending otherwise.

Do we have any solid evidence about the value added by publishers? I have some personal knowledge in a few random cases (from the publishing side not the author’s side) and am not impressed by the value added. Conversely there are journals like PLoS One that seem to have a very low cost structure and do not seem to suffer much from lack of value added. Also increasingly there is research that is “published” in archives but never goes into journals — such as Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture.

So I know that publishers are extracting rents above the value added — to some unknown extent. It would be strange if they did not, given the power to do so. I’d like to know how much of the money they take in goes to rents rather than value. Is there any good evidence or analysis on this?

To play the devil’s advocate, it may fairly be said that university presses got their start in this country because it was the firm belief of some university administrators that research without dissemination was insufficient to carry out the university’s mandate, which was–in the famous words of Daniel Coit Gilman in founding the press at Johns Hopkins–to “disseminate knowledge far and wide.” And it can further be fairly said that, at least at public universities, taxpayer money has been used to fund the dissemination as well as the creation of research. All the more reason, then, for presses at those universities to move in the direction of open access, don’t you think?

The belief that “research without dissemination (is) insufficient to carry out the university’s mandate” is one that should inform the institution’s evaluation of the tradeoff between dissemination and research support. It doesn’t change the fact that a tradeoff is involved when money that could be spent on research is instead spent on dissemination.

As for whether universities should move in the direction of OA: I’d say they should do so to the degree that they expect the benefits of OA to outweigh the costs. In order to make a rational decision in that regard, though, all costs (and all benefits) need to be taken into account — not swept under a rhetorical rug.

I find it confusing that for many, “access to publicly funded research” means access to the reports written about the research, and not the actual fruits of the research itself. If one holds that when something is paid for using taxpayer funds, the results must be given freely to the taxpayer, then one would expect a similarly vocal movement against researchers and institutions profiting from patenting their discoveries (though to be honest, I find this an odd line of reasoning as my taxes pay for NYC’s bridges, buses and subways yet I am required to pay for access to them).

Researchers and institutions seem unwilling to give up this lucrative source of revenue. Think of all the money Stanford has made from the Google algorithms, developed under an NSF grant.

Should patenting and profiting from publicly funded research be banned as well?

David, I am no expert but I believe the patent issue is largely the basis of the Bayh-Dole Act. The act has in my view some pretty reasonable restrictions such as the university/small business has to actively commercialize the invention, share with the inventor, and use most of the remaining money for education/research. In my view pretty this is not a bad use of federal funds.

As to Rick Anderson’s essay above, I do think it makes sense to think of dissemination as part of the research continuum and if you are going to fund research, fund the dissemination as well. For reasons not unlike the logic of the Bayh-Dole act. First, obviously without knowledge of prior research in the field, researchers can’t do research. Research and scholarship are always incremental building on past research and scholarship. While it may not be absolutely necessary to fund dissemination as part of the research process, it just seems to make sense. How much resources should be invested in various aspects of dissemination such as copy editing typesetting etc. needs to be debated and I am surprised and a little disappointed that funders such as the NIH, Welcome etc. do not seem to be addressing this.

Another argument for including the funding for dissemination in grants is that by making the results freely available makes future research more efficient. Most researchers have pretty good access to the literature they need to do their research and scholarship through their university or other employer library. In my experience however it takes several minutes accessing an article through the library portal as compared to just clicking on a link for one that is OA. I’ve never really tracked it but I also estimate in my own research about 10 or 15 percent of the articles I need are not in my library’s electronic holdings making them very difficult to obtain. I work at a major public university so I doubt my experience is unique.

Since dissemination of research does take resources and someone ends up paying for it one way or another to me it just makes sense to roll the cost of dissemination into the cost of doing research and scholarship and may it freely available.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against Bayh-Dole in any way. I think it provides strong incentives and rewards for researchers who do good work, and provides further means for institutions to fund research. My point was merely that if one’s logic is consistent in the “everything taxpayers support must be free”, then Bayh-Dole should be opposed and mass transit should stop demanding fares.

Rick, you are quite right that “access to publicly-funded research” is basically a rhetorical device, a political slogan, but it has great legs. Something is going to happen on this issue, in the USA at least. But author pays is just one possibility. NIH already requires open archiving of subscription articles after 6 months. Extending this model to the whole government is one policy solution that does not imply shifting to author pays.

Note too by the way that NIH already funds the National Library of Medicine at about $350 million. So the issue is not whether to spend money on dissemination, but how much to spend. I argue that dissemination is necessary for progress so it is as valuable as research, if not more valuable, up to a point. The policy question is where that point lies?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that dissemination is necessary in order for science to progress. The question (or one question, anyway) is: to what degree does it make sense for research funders to take money that would have produced more scientific findings and use that money to make fewer findings freely available to everyone? One upside of that approach is the enormous gain in dissemination; one downside is the reduction in actual science produced. You’re right, of course, that an author-pay arrangement is only one model; different models will offer different tradeoffs. I don’t think any model should be off the table entirely — but discussion of any model ought to proceed on the basis of an honest assessment of all costs and benefits.

I happen to have a paper on this trade-off, to be presented next week at a major policy conference:
“A Missing Policy: Capacity Building for Sharing Scientific Knowledge”
http://conferences.library.gatech.edu/acsip/index.php/acsip/ATLC11/paper/view/367/317

The science policy community does not even know this issue exists. Nor is cost benefit analysis possible, because no one knows what the benefit of communication is. For that matter we are not sure what the benefit of research is. See http://www.scienceofsciencepolicy.net

But talking about taking money from research to give to communication is itself a bit of a political slogan, is it not? The question is one of balance, given the communication revolution. Right now the US Federal system is out of balance.

Cost/benefit analysis is possible at the simple level of dollars diverted: redirection of dollars from one place to another means a real, quantifiable debit (or cost) on one side of the ledger and a real, quantifiable credit (or benefit) on the other. You’re right, of course, that the ultimate implications of that redirection can be only imperfectly predicted — that’s true of virtually any decision one makes when allocating resources. But some prediction has to be made if you’re going to make an allocation decision, and pretending that the tradeoff isn’t real makes responsible decisionmaking impossible.

I don’t accept that talking about the tradeoff amounts to political sloganeering. It seems to me that sloganeering is about the manner in which one discusses an issue, not about the issue itself. I think you’re right that the question is one of balance. In order to discuss balance, you have to acknowledge the weights on either side. What I’m objecting to in my post is those who only acknowledge the weight of one side of the question (access) while asserting that the other side (post-research costs of dissemination) is weightless.

Sorry, I thought your were talking about actual cost benefit analysis of funding-policy choices, something us folks in the science of science policy world are working on. The funding itself is neither a cost nor a benefit, that is a matter of the impacts of the choices.

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