There seems to be a trend emerging — open access-friendly pieces appearing in major newspapers, pieces apparently originating from London.
A couple of weeks ago, George Monbiot published a rant in the Guardian about open access, one which even open access advocates felt was a bit shrill. We dealt with that piece here, in a post that yielded the most comments we’ve ever had, and some of the best. Now we find another bit of open access spin in, of all places, the New York Times. The piece was written by D. D. Guttenplan, a London-based correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, which often shares content with its parent, the New York Times.
Guttenplan also blogs for the Guardian.
To illustrate how tilted the reporting in the New York Times piece is, I’ve taken some quotes from the article to show how a journalist with more perspicacity might have treated the same material:
- “Unlike paper publications, PLoS One has no restrictions on the number of articles it can accept.” — Endless capacity is presented as a clearly positive innovation. In some ways, this is true — having no restrictions on the number of articles it can accept has led PLoS ONE to become a bulk-publishing powerhouse, boasting of being the largest journal in the world and not flinching from an acceptance rate of nearly 70%, all while this high volume of author charges was a major driver in PLoS’ first year in the black. But there is another side to the story, one Guttenplan doesn’t really touch. Filtering content is about restrictions, limits, and so forth, all to save readers work and help to ensure interest and relevance. Consciously changing criteria with the rhetorical shift from “scientifically sound” to “methodologically sound” in order to justify a business model predicated on acceptance instead of rejection could easily be portrayed as cynical. The fact that a sentence this clearly problematic isn’t criticized in the New York Times’ piece suggests gullibility, if not outright complicity, on the part of Guttenplan.
- Alternate version: A relatively new journal, one which requires authors to pay to be published, has eliminated traditional restrictions on capacity, accepts 7 out of 10 papers it receives, and has no clear audience other than the amorphous world of “science.” By pumping through as many papers as possible at more than $1,300 each, this journal has allowed its parent organization to generate a 21% profit after only four years of backing this new style of limitless journal. All the while, this organization’s adherents complain about the high costs of publishing and the profit-taking of major publishers, apparently in an effort to tilt more business their way.
- “‘We don’t ask how important the work is or whether the findings are new,’ said Dr. Patterson, a geneticist who worked at Oxford University and Stanford University before going into publishing. ‘We think there are other mechanisms that can decide those things.'” — Again, same problem as above — blatant promotion of a lesser standard, foisting the work of filtering off on others, and evading responsibility for everything but the most basic type of review allowable. “We don’t ask how important the work is or whether the findings are new”?!? A skeptical journalist would have torn that apart. Why don’t you as how important the work is or whether the findings are new? Are those questions really that hard to ask? Are you saying PLoS ONE publishes redundant, unimportant works? What is its role? What other mechanisms exist to vet what PLoS ONE pushes onto the market? Why does it push 70% of what it receives on the market? Is it just to make money?
- Alternate version: Most publishers take responsibility for publishing materials that will be important or new, placing a premium on findings that fulfill these criteria and rejecting the rest. This “cost of rejection” is a major contributory factor to the cost of running respected journals, many of which have acceptance rates well below 20%. Yet, open access adherents play by different rules. “We don’t ask how important the work is or whether the findings are new,” said Dr. Patterson, a geneticist who worked at Oxford University and Stanford University before going into publishing. “We think there are other mechanisms that can decide those things.” By flooding the market with papers that don’t meet the criteria of importance or novelty, and assuming someone else will take care of those things, one is reminded of factories spewing pollution into rivers and hoping someone downstream will clean up after them.
- “Whoever pays the bills, publishing is not free. . . . According the Mr. Suber converting to open access ‘will involve some cost shifting, But [sic] also considerable cost savings’ for libraries and university budgets.” — Publishing is not free, yet most of the article is about how access should be free and how radical changes in economics, made possible by the Internet, may make this feasible. Yet, as many of us know, online publishing is expensive, retaining all the fixed costs of print publishing, and adding new fixed costs that often exceed the variable costs print incurred. The lack of viable open access publishers — those not needing grant support, cross-subsidization by traditional revenue streams, or government support — would make a more skeptical reporter ask some questions. Where is the evidence of this? Is publishing 70% of the papers you receive using a lower bar of acceptance the only way to make it viable? Is that really saving anyone money? What about the indirect costs of discoverability? What about the filtering costs you’ve explicitly foisted off on others (see above)?
- Alternate version: Publishing is not free, open access advocates admit. Peter Suber, an open access advocate of long standing, asserts that converting to open access “will involve some cost shifting, but also considerable savings” for libraries and universities. These assertions have not been proven. Meanwhile, based on unfounded assertions like these, funds to support open access publishing have been set aside at many institutions, drawn from library and academic budgets. But many go untouched or underutilized, plunging these funds into the shadows and depriving libraries further at a time when providing what their patrons want most is difficult. Meanwhile, sustainable open access publishing seems to be a numbers game at some level — either cross-subsidized by other revenue sources or dependent on low rejection rates to ensure a sufficient stream of paying authors.
There are other surprises in the New York Times article, one of which is that a spokesman for Elsevier declined to comment when contacted. Really? If there really was a concerted effort expended to get hold of someone from Elsevier and this was their (lack of) response, I’m surprised. Elsevier should have these responses memorized by now and know enough to answer calls from reporters. Elsevier’s apparent lack of a current response left Guttenplan to quote from 2004 Parliamentary testimony, long after some people have left the organization’s they’re associated with in the piece, creating yet more of a throwback aspect to his writing on the topic. He could have at least updated those simple factual matters.
Guttenplan also cites the Scholarly Kitchen, but not only is the mention not even cursory in its portrayal of discussions here, no effort was made to contact anyone here for a quote or comment.
It seems most of the effort was expended getting quotes from open access advocates, another indication that its true intent wasn’t objective journalism.
The arguments of the open access advocates aren’t really the point here — they’re pretty much retreads of the arguments of old. What’s new is the level of activity and prominence of the open access PR machine — possibly a London-based branch of it. In just a couple of weeks, we’ve witnessed two unabashedly pro-OA pieces written by two different people — both of whom have a record of siding with the downtrodden and lost causes — published in major newspapers (the Guardian, the New York Times), and composed of ideas, verbiage, and arguments more than a decade old. If it’s coincidence, it’s one heck of a coincidence.
Is it possible we’re seeing how PLoS might be spending its surplus — on public relations, just like they did in the early days? If that’s the case, get ready for an onslaught of the same kind of messaging we heard in 1999. However, this time, open access is mainstream, profitable, and rather well-understood.
If only the newspaper editors were providing a better filter.