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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?

  1. Publishing an open access article in a Springer owned BioMed Central journal, where all revenue goes to a commercial publisher?
  2. Publishing an open access article in a PLoS journal, where all revenue goes to support PLoS’ publishing efforts?
  3. 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.

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


117 Thoughts on "The Research Works Act: Is It Time For a Rally To Restore Sanity?"

I don’t think the RWA draws the line where you say it does in your first paragraph, unless by open access advocates you just mean advocates for a federal solution. It basically says the US federal government shall not impose open access by mandate. This leaves the issue to be resolved in the marketplace. Nor does it rule out federal actions that create the kind of open access business opportunities that you allude to. For example, science agencies can pay author fees.

Well, there’s a reason I put that disclaimer in the post, as I figured some here might feel differently, particularly given your views on IP. I think this measure is seen as extreme by many because it is banning a program that is generally seen as having been successful and had a positive effect. Asking to end that activity for philosophical reasons (wanting to limit the powers of the federal government) while presenting no evidence of it being detrimental seems pretty flimsy, particularly because it is likely that some are using this as a thinly veiled pretense to roll back current levels of access.

We live in challenging times, and the pace of technological progress means constant experimentation and adaptation. Arbitrarily banning one method of experimentation, and one that has shown some promise, is difficult to support.

I am all for experimentation with open access business models; I even have my own ideas on it. But policy differences are often based on principles. You see the NIH program as successful, but I see it as successful piracy. As such a cost-benefit analysis is inappropriate. I am delighted that Rep. Issa sees it my way.

I think there is some room for debate, and the presence of Bayh-Dole makes things a bit confusing as you have argued for intellectual property. But I tend to think of this as just another set of restrictions on the use of grant money. Federal grants come with an enormous amount of limitations on how the money can be spent (what % can go to overhead, salaries, equipment, etc.). This to me is merely another set of limitations–if you want the money, here are the conditions you must meet.

But the use of the term “piracy” is the sort of emotionally stirring rhetoric that I think takes away from the actual debate of issues. Is this instead an example of eminent domain?

There are two issues really. The first is whether the government can legally impose such conditions. They are basically creating a perpetual obligation on my part, one that is extremely vague as it applies to anything I write that somehow reflects the work I did for them. I cannot imagine the Courts upholding contract language like this. For example, I did a study for DOD in 1978. The report is in DTIC. If I now use some of those ideas in a journal article would the government have an OA claim on that article? The more you think about this as a legal framework, the less sense it makes.

The second issue is whether the government should do it, provided it can. Here is where cost-benefit would come in. My argument is that it is much better for the government to simply publish the research reports that it already owns, and leave the journal system alone..

Both good points. For the first one, how does Bayh-Dole define intellectual property? Should the paper that results from the grant be considered the IP of the grant recipient? Can the government compel the author to do a particular thing with it? This becomes even more problematic for any potential data archiving policy–that data is clearly the IP of the researcher, and belongs to them under Bayh-Dole. It’s unclear if the government can legally demand it be released.

If one draws that IP line, then what’s the difference between a journal article and a research report? Is a research report as useful, given that it hasn’t gone through peer review or the ranking process of a journal article? Can we standardize research reports so they’re machine-readable and as useful for data mining as we’re trying to make journal articles?

Elsevier has attempted to respond to your call for evidence and to suggest how publishers can be in favor of both open access and the RWA. Here is part of the statement Elsevier posted on Liblicense yesterday:

I am very happy to explain further how it is possible for Elsevier to
be both positive about PubMed Central and the Research Works Act.

Elsevier participated in the voluntary NIH posting policy before the
NIH mandate was enacted.  We continue to post on behalf of our
authors, despite increasing concern over the uniform 12 month embargo
period and a principled objection to government-imposed mandates.
What the Research Works Act would do is end the mandate that requires
the free posting of content that has been invested in and improved
upon by publishers, unless they agree to that posting. The Research
Works Act would not end our desire to work in partnership with NIH,
but would give us all more flexibility to negotiate sustainable

We have specific concerns about the NIH mandate which at best is
overly rigid/onerous, and at worst actually damaging. Early
indications show the NIH Public Access Policy has had a negative
impact on Elsevier and other publishers.  We have experienced a modest
reduction of usage (by subscribers) and transactional sales (for non
subscribers) for articles on our publishing platform after they are
placed on PubMed Central even with links to the published journal
article.  The NIH policy has only been in effect a few years and so
these early warning signs are important:  they indicate usage and
revenue loss could increase over time as the content duplicated in PMC
increases.   This early evidence also suggests that PMC is providing
access to users already served by the publishing system – essentially
using tax payer funds to duplicate publisher efforts, and depriving
publishers of revenue for their investments.  The current NIH public
access policy therefore seems neither efficient nor sustainable.

I would like to see the actual data, and compare with PubMed Central usage data to see if this is causal or coincidental.

But one interesting part of the recent White House RFI is questioning whether a centralized repository is necessary, whether papers could instead be hosted by the publisher and linked to from a science-wide version of PubMed. This would alleviate the drop in usage by subscribers mentioned.

As I recall, a system like this used to operate (Publink?). PubMed stored full-text articles that could be searched by users but directed them to publishers websites to view the content. They discontinued this several years ago (we can argue about why) but it strikes me that, were this to be reimplemented with a mandate for publishers to provide free access after 6/12 months, most people on both sides would be happy.

Turning PubMed Central from a journal competitor into a traffic driver for free articles at journals would garner it a much greater level of support than it currently sees from publishers. It would also solve the problem of version control. When an author uploads the accepted draft version of his manuscript, that same author may not upload the retraction notice, the erratum, etc. So you end up with multiple versions of the paper in different places, some that may not be right. If you instead pointed to the free version on the journal’s site, you’d be sure that everyone would get the version of record.

Do you (or others on this list) know many society-owned journals are published by commercial publishing houses? Some, like Wiley-Blackwell, I’ve heard, publish quite a lot.

Are you looking for a specific number? I don’t have that, though I can tell you that of OUP’s 270-odd journals, around 70% are society-owned. I don’t know of any complete listing of all publishers though. You kind of have to go through them one-by-one.

Following on from this – for the society owned journals, do you happen to know of any figures on the proportion of revenue generated by the journals which is then returned to the society? Is there a standard ‘royalty’ payment of some sort?

It varies greatly from journal to journal, from society to society. The way it generally works is that a society puts their journal out to bid. Publishers then put together proposals for what they’re willing to offer the society, and they compete against each other to see who can come up with the most compelling offer. This goes beyond monetary compensation, as things like technological platform, editorial support, etc. all come into play. There’s no real standard for payment though, and the actual payments vary from flat fees to percentages of revenue to profit-sharing mechanisms.

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (the journal of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology) is published by Taylor & Frances. (Access has become noticably worse since they made the switch from self-publishing, BTW.) Palaeontology (journal of the Palaeontological Association) is published by Blackwell.

Please note that paleontology was chosen entirely at random. But your point is a good one, that there are choices to be made. Since the society moved from self-publishing to T&F, they may be benefiting in other ways. They may be much better off financially, they may have a much better and more reliable platform for their journal, they may have a better submission and editorial system, they may have the ability to publish more articles, etc.

But as you note, they may have made some trade-offs regarding access. And depending on your priorities, you have to weigh those factors and decide where to publish. Though realistically, most researchers are going to publish in the journal that offers them the most career reward, regardless of most of these issues.

I hereby present my exhaustive survey, sample size of one:

“They may be much better off financially.”

Yes. This is why they made the switch. (At least, they made the switch because they believed they would be better of financially. How that’s actually panning out, I couldn’t say.)

“They may have a much better and more reliable platform for their journal.”

No — the old one was fine.

“They may have a better submission and editorial system.”

No, it’s basically unchanged.

“They may have the ability to publish more articles, etc.”

May be true. It’s certainly true that they are publishing more articles now than a couple of years ago, but that trend was already in place and it’s not clear how much the switch to out-of-house publishing has helped that trend (or maybe hindered it, though I would guess not).

One of the real benefits of society journals is that members of the community can have a strong influence on them. Societies want participation. If you have a vision for your society’s journal that’s not being fulfilled, volunteer, offer to work on their publications committee. As a member of a society, you are the owner of their journal. Make your voice heard.

“One of the real benefits of society journals is that members of the community can have a strong influence on them.”

Evidently you’re not a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

(Then again: neither am I, any more. This is one reason.)

Disillusioned of Ruardean.

Fair enough! It’s pretty far from the fields in which I move. But if a society isn’t serving the needs of the community, perhaps that’s a sign that the community needs a new society.

David C., In your opening paragraph, I do not understand the distinction you are making between commercial and not for profit publishers. Nor do I see this distinction elaborated in the article. Does not federally mandated open access impact them equally?

Sorry, I guess I felt it was obvious.

A commercial publisher has profit as its ultimate goal, providing return to investors, owners, shareholders. Not-for-profit publishers need to profit as well, but that profit is not the ultimate goal, and is instead used to achieve different things. I don’t think that I need to explain that Elsevier’s reasons for publishing journals are different from PLoS’. I have worked on projects where it was clear they were going to lose money, but that were worth doing because they were good for a field, or good for science. Note that many university presses are run at a loss and subsidized by their home institutions.

Many not-for-profits see the dissemination of scholarship as a primary goal, exceeding even that of making money. Federally mandated open access actually contributes to that goal, rather than detracts from it.

So one can not lump all publishers into one boat, declare them all greedy enemies of science, nor should one automatically expect all publishers to support this piece of legislation.

Great post! The extreme rhetoric on both sides is something that I find very frustrating and off putting. I understand feeling passionate about something, but once the argument devolves into what amounts to name calling I lose interest in listening. You’re right that it is not a simple black & white situation. I applaud your real world description of the choices a researcher must face. Unfortunately you’re also correct in that it doesn’t make for a good “soundbite.”

I don’t see why government agencies simply can’t require that all final reports resulting from research projects be immediately posted (subject only to national security considerations) on their acceptance. What is the extra advantage to the public of having Green OA versions of journal articles (written for a different audience and often using jargon) posted 12 months after publication of the final versions? For results like medical information, that delay is significant, and the posting of non-archival versions is not good for scholarship either. (Stevan Harnad has argued, in reply to this point, that what scientists need are journal articles, not research reports, and that this is why the NIH policy is beneficial. He is focusing on the scholarly community, I’m focusing on the general public in response to the “taxpayers should get what they’ve paid for” argument.)

I think that’s a reasonable approach for the lay public, though clearly we need better standards for those reports and better enforcement of compliance by granting agencies.

As for the research community, it’s a debate worth having. I think the “taxpayers own it” argument is rubbish. But what is the role of the federal government here, just to provide unrestricted funds? To try to drive science progress and discovery? To try to drive financial development? How can it best achieve a balance between these things?

That’s the reason for the recent RFI, particularly to let the publishing industry have its say. I’d rather the debate and experimentation continue than taking options completely off the table.

Sandy, I hope you’re not suggesting that the “lay public” wouldn’t have the sophistication to read research papers. For one, that’s insulting to the millions of patients who want to know more about their condition, for two, it’s not just the public that doesn’t have access. Even some elite institutions are struggling these days, particularly with the Big Deals they’re signed up to.

There is nothing insulting about the fact that being ill does not make one able to understand journal articles on one’s illness. I am reminded of the joke where the patient asks the doctor, “Will I be able to play the piano when this is over?” and the doctor says “yes.” The patient then says “Good, as otherwise I would have to learn how.”

Generally speaking you have to be an expert, not just in the field but in the specific technical issue the article is addressing. A while back my wife had to have a special sort of back surgery. I looked at the journal articles of the surgeon and could not understand any of them, and I read science for a living. The claim that patients need free access to the journal literature simply does not hold up.

I find the argument, through anecdote, of the patients (in)ability to read and understand the primary research literature very unsatisfying. There are very few studies of how the lay public use the research literature. All of these studies fail to distinguish between primary literature and secondary literature and routinely confuse format for content type.

Bill Walters review the literature on this topic in a section of our review article titled “USE OF THE BIOMEDICAL LITERATURE BY THE GENERAL PUBLIC”. The article is freely available:

Davis PM, Walters WH. The Impact of Free Access to the Scientific Literature: A Review of Recent Research. J Med Libr Assoc. 2011 Jul;99(3).

Phil, I am prepared to argue this point, not from anecdote but rather from my general theory of scientific concepts, language and knowledge. Jargon exists because a few scientists are talking about things no one else is talking about. The concepts expressed by this jargon are bodies of core knowledge about these special things (a concept is that you have to know to use a word correctly). These specialized concept are built upon a large number of discipline specific concepts, an issue tree of these in fact, with many layers of increasing specificity and specialty. This is why only a few people can understand the typical journal article. But it really depends on which concepts are being used.

The point is that I do not think there are millions of people who immerse themselves in the science of their illness, or their loved one’s illness. Certainly not enough to justify the forced restructuring of the industry. But it is a good research topic.

You might be surprised, David. Pubmed Central gets 500000 pageviews a day, 60% of which comes from non-institutional domains. The industry hasn’t been disrupted yet providing access to all these people, although, given that they’re doing it all on a couple million a year, I hope someone in Congress is paying attention and will begin to ask why for-profit access is so much more expensive.

And just so no one’s confused, the Research Works Act is not designed to disrupt anything but access. It would enshrine the *current* system in law.

How does the RWA enshrine anything? As I read it it just makes some things illegal. For profit (and non profit) access is expensive because they are the publishers, unlike NIH who simply takes their product for nothing.

“For profit (and non profit) access is expensive because they are the publishers, unlike NIH who simply takes their product for nothing.”

Honestly, David, once you starting talking about THE FUNDING BODY taking “the product” for nothing, we really do need to restore sanity. This is an absolutely upside-down view. The funding body provides the funds (clue’s in the question), investing far, far more in financial terms than any other party.

The product is the article Mike, not the research. People are trying to conflate the two but they are very different. The government does not fund the article, the publisher does.

“The product is the article Mike, not the research. People are trying to conflate the two but they are very different.”

Let us for the moment accept this assertion, even though I find it very doubtful.

“The government does not fund the article, the publisher does.”

This is plainly and simply not true. The publisher funds, at most, the management of the peer-review process. As a proportion of effort invested into the article, even if we neglect all the actual research this is still a vanishingly tiny part of the effort invested by the author (in writing, revising, preparing figures, formatting to the journal’s style guide) and by the reviewers — neither of who are in any way funded by the publisher. (And let’s remember that it’s also not unusual, adding insult to injury, for the publisher to require the author to pay page charges.)

None of this is to say that the publisher makes no contribution. It does, and of course it’s right that it should be appropriately compensated for its contribution. But to claim that “the publisher funds the article” is grotesquely misleading.

If all a publisher funds, at most, is management of the peer review process, then how does PLoS rack up $12 million in expenses in a year, given their all-volunteer editorial staff? Perhaps publishers have some other expenses you’re not accounting for here. Weren’t you just the one calling for sanity in this discussion?

You are changing the point. The publisher pays for the production of the article, not the government. This is why subscriptions cost money. There is no insult and no injury, just industry.

“If all a publisher funds, at most, is management of the peer review process, then how does PLoS rack up $12 million in expenses in a year, given their all-volunteer editorial staff? Perhaps publishers have some other expenses you’re not accounting for here.”

We’re not talking about what expenses publishers incur. For all I know, PLoS’s full-time staff all eat caviare for lunch every day and sit at desks made of solid gold. We’re talking about the investment that publishers make in the finished article. My contention is that it is a tiny proportion of the total investment made into that article, that it is swamped by the contribution of the author and reviewers, even if you ignore all the actual research (which by the way is not a reasonable thing to go, but let it pass).

One of the big expenses publishers incur is the cost of rejection. For PLoS, this can be 30-80% of the papers they see, depending on the title. Rejecting papers is expensive. Is that part of what you misleadingly call the “investment” in the finished article? Publishers don’t “invest” in finished articles — publishers work with authors to get the best finished articles to other researchers and practitioners to advance understanding and knowledge. We’re not as cynical as “investment” would make it sound. Most journals reject hundreds or thousands of papers per year, often after investing a lot in those. If we don’t publish them, the sunk costs of the research don’t change. You can’t conflate the two because research and publication are separate processes. The value of third-party review and sorting is high, and the expenses aren’t just in the published works.

And I’m suggesting that there are other investments made in producing and making available the finished article that go beyond the peer review process and caviar/gold desk procurement. Ignoring these makes your argument less meaningful and more inflammatory.

I’m suggesting that they don’t need access to the journal literature since the final research reports themselves should give them all the information they need. Journal articles are written for purposes that are different from what the public needs. E.g., the public does not need discussion of how the empirical findings confirm or disconfirm some high-level abstract theory. The public does not need everything worked out in the most sophisticated mathematical way, since very few members of the public will have the ability to grasp what the math means. Etc. Scientists who lack access to a journal article can always contact the author via e-mail and request a copy. It’s not that difficult to find people’s e-mail addresses.

I think this is a bit typical of the overblown rhetoric in use these days, more political than reflective of reality. Sandy, how dare you imply that the average person doesn’t have the same skillset and knowledgebase as those who have been through rigorous PhD programs! Are you calling the American people stupid!?!?!

Of course you’re not. I can’t read the legalese of a contract and fully understand it because I don’t have training as a lawyer. I can’t repair the sophisticated systems of my car’s engine because I don’t have training as a mechanic. Are these statements insults to me?

I’ve been reading scientific papers for nearly 30 years, and while I can pretty much understand any biology paper I read if I put in the effort, get me a few steps away into hardcore physics, astronomy, chemistry and I’m likely lost.

While I don’t think the research report serves all needs, and there’s a different argument to be made for why the primary literature needs to be more accessible to experts, I do like the idea of improving those reports and perhaps requiring a lay summary of the research. This would go far to make things accessible to the taxpayer, and would be much more valuable to my grandmother than say, a cutting edge paper on string theory.

Also note that much of this argument is a bit meaningless given that many, if not most medical publishers make their articles freely available to patients through a program that brings together publishers and health organizations in order to provide information and understanding of those papers:

If taxpayers want unfettered access to the results of governmernt-funded research it would be nice if they built publication funding (and not just research funding) into those grants.

A colleague and I have proposed a new publishing model, dubbed iPubSci, that solves many of the problems currently confronting the research community and the availability (or lack thereof) of articles. Details can be found on the website, which contains a link to my original article about this model. For me, the key issue is maximizing affordable access to the scientific literature, both past and present. iPubSci is envisioned as a fusion of a PubMed type search engine blended with an iTunes-like interface that would make it easy to find and download science articles on a per-article basis. iPubSci was designed to provide easy, affordable, and legal access to the scientific literature. The impetus for this proposal: scientists at a majority of the nation’s biotech companies cannot afford significant access to much of the scientific literature. This is an important problem since Big Pharma is now planning on sourcing a significant percentage of their drugs from small, innovative biotechs. However, the capacity of this group of companies to deliver new, well vetted leads in seriously impacted by their inability to access the science literature. The iPubSci model, if enacted, would solve one of the biggest problems in the field in that it would provide affordable access to the legacy scientific literature, which comprises ~ 2/3 of the articles in PubMed that currently cannot be accessed for free. The for-profit publishers want $30-$35 apiece for these articles, which is a non-starter for many of those at non-profit health organizations, disease advocacy organizations, teachers, patent agents, and individuals looking to research their own diseases or those of loved ones. Open access advocates have no coherent solution (that I have heard) that allows affordable access to these legacy articles, many of which could form the basis for many future scientific discoveries. Those that think only academics need access to the literature are seriously misinformed, and the future of drug development is imperiled by this lack of affordable journal access. Academics would also find a great deal to like in an iPubSci model.

I have a friend that works in environmental consultancy and he’s also desperate to get hold of ecology/resource management literature, but even though he’s offered copious cash to various people he still can’t get access. Why don’t businesses form consortia and negotiate access to a lot of journals that way?

This discussion overlooks the fact that subscriptions are expensive for everyone, including academic institutions. With interdisciplinary research becoming more common, access to broad scholarly work is necessary but the continuing slicing up of the literature into more journals (profit or non) adds costs to university subscription packages. This is why all the librarians I know support open access. Im sure we all have lists of journals we want our libraries to add. The societies are not necessarily the best citizens either, wanting to preserve their own journal hierarchy over open access and lowering our institutional subscription costs. The article assumes that there is a equal cost to publishing in closed access vs open access, and we are choosing where those funds go by our choice of publisher. I think this is quite incorrect, closed access is much more expensive when you consider the large subscription costs (and closed access journals often have significant page charges too). Ask your library how much they pay for subscriptions. It is impressive.

Can you provide some data to back up the statement that an author-pays environment would overall be less expensive than a subscription environment? Some have suggested that the subscription model greatly reduces library costs (at least in comparison with purchasing individual articles):

What assumptions are you making as far as author fees? Note that those behind higher end journals have suggested author fees in the range of $15K to $20K per article in order to make ends meet.

Mac, somewhere above David Crotty argues that the federally mandated NIH OA program does not reduce subscription revenues, and here you are talking about reducing library subscription costs, basically making journals free. Clearly you are talking about two different things, and this confusion infects the entire OA debate.

Embargoed OA of subscription articles is fundamentally different from author pays OA, and both are fundamentally different from post publication review of author posted articles, and so on for the various other OA mechanisms being proposed. All RWA says is that the US federal government should not make this decision. There is nothing anti-OA per se about RWA. It does zero the NIH program, as well as some smaller experiments in other agencies, but that just means the federal government is taking its hands off the issue. I think that is the wisest course at this point.

I would respectfully suggest, Mac, that while Gold OA will reduce your library’s subscription costs, it will not lower the overall costs to your university of journal publishing because commercial publishers will simply substitute upfront fees that maintain (if not increase!) their current high profit margins. And your university will, in one way or another, be involved in supporting the costs of Gold OA publishing done by non-profits like PLoS as well (unless the fees are paid by foundations or other external organizations). The transition from TA to OA is not going to change the economic bottom line at all.

“I would respectfully suggest, Mac, that while Gold OA will reduce your library’s subscription costs, it will not lower the overall costs to your university of journal publishing because commercial publishers will simply substitute upfront fees that maintain (if not increase!) their current high profit margins.”

That won’t work, though, will it? When PLoS charges $1350 to publish an open-access article and Elsevier charges $3000, or raises it to $6000, the people submitting the paper will be the ones who feel the pain of Elsevier’s inflated profits, and they will choose PLoS. I have to wonder whether the only reason traditional commercial publishers are still in the game at all is that the additional costs they impose are felt in the library whereas the choice to give them research lies with research groups. When both budgets come from the same pot, the commericals will have to up their game to stay competitive, and won’t be able to just wind up their fees whenever they feel like it.

And what prevents PLoS from charging $6,000? Its non-profit status doesn’t guarantee low fees. PLoS can decide to pay its CEO as much as Elsevier pays its CEO. It can decide to open offices in an expensive real estate market. PLoS can pursue a strategy, like Amazon, of underpricing its competition until it drives the competition out of the market and then raising prices dramatically. I don’t trust PLoS anymore than I trust Elsevier. Is there a reason i should?

“And what prevents PLoS from charging $6,000?”

Their raison d’etre. “Our mission is to accelerate progress in science and medicine.” Whereas Elsevier’s mission is to increase shareholder value. That’s not a criticism of Elsevier, it’s just the nature of what kind of body it is.

Mike, have you never heard of a non-profit that paid its executives lavish sums and spent lots of money on things not necessary for fulfilling its mission? That’s one reason, when people give to charities, they like to know how much money goes to the people who need it and not for “administrative” costs. It would be nice if PLoS and other non-profits were fully transparent about their expenses and income.

“It would be nice if PLoS and other non-profits were fully transparent about their expenses and income.”

What, more transparent than the complete set of updates and tax returns made freely available at ? In particular, the 2010 tax return lists compensation for all officers directors and trustees, including Chief Executive Peter Jerram ($433K) COO/CFO Stephen Borostyan ($257k) and IT Director Richard Cave ($152K). Do you happen to know the corresponding figures for Elevier’s officers?

Thanks for the link to PLoS’s financial summary, which is helpful but also hides a lot of detail. As for the CEO’s salary, comparing it with other non-profit publishing salaries I know about, viz., university presses, I’ll just note that it is about twice as much as the highest paid university press director makes and four times what I made as director of Penn State Press at the end of my 20 years there. How long has this CEO been in his job–maybe two years? I don’t know what Elsevier’s CEO makes, but if it is a public company, as i believe it is, you can find out easily enough. I do recall that the head of John Wiley & Sons a decade ago, Charles Ellis, who was a good friend, was making about $650,000 back then. Of course, Wiley is a much bigger company by far than PLoS. I don’t find the salaries you cite impressive if they are supposed to represent modesty or restraint on the part of mission-driven publishers. I’d like to know what makes PLoS’s CEO with far less experience in the business worth four times what i made.

Mike, it’s not as simple as that. Why does anyone publish articles in PLoS Medicine for $2900 when they could publish in PLoS ONE for $1350? Different journals offer different things, and they compete on many different levels. If you could publish a paper in journal X or journal Y, and Y offers vastly more career benefit than X, would you pay an additional $1500 for that extra push toward tenure or a better job? What if one journal offers a faster route to publication, actual copyediting or in-house professional artists to improve the quality of your figures?

Elsevier has a huge leg up on PLoS because of the size of their operation. PLoS’ 7 journals must each cover 1/7 of overhead costs. Elsevier splits those overhead costs among something like 1,500 journals. Elsevier buys materials and services in bulk. They can take advantage of scale and offer more than PLoS at a lower cost, should push come to shove. That’s one of the unintended consequences of a move to an all-OA market, it greatly favors larger publishers over the smaller independents, and will result in massive market consolidation.

Can you provide any data on the “additional costs” of subscription journals versus OA journals? I asked above, and would be very interested to get a sense of the economics of switching to an all-OA economy, what it would cost and what would be sacrificed.

@Sandy Thatcher – isn’t the whole point of a non-profit that its workings are transparent? I can go to GuideStar, look up PLoS ONE, and then download relatively recent financial statement summaries, find out everyone’s salaries, etc. I can’t do that for most (?any?) commercial publishers.

“What if one journal offers a faster route to publication, actual copyediting or in-house professional artists to improve the quality of your figures?”

What a fascinating concept. Do such journals exist? I’ve certainly never encountered one. (I’ve occasionally had my manuscripts copy-edited, but when it’s been done at all it’s been done by unpaid peer-reviewers, never by the journal.)

“Elsevier has a huge leg up on PLoS because of the size of their operation. PLoS’ 7 journals must each cover 1/7 of overhead costs. Elsevier splits those overhead costs among something like 1,500 journals. Elsevier buys materials and services in bulk. They can take advantage of scale and offer more than PLoS at a lower cost, should push come to shove.”

These are all good and compelling reasons why Elsevier should be able to undercut PLoS’s open-access fees. Instead, they charge signficantly more than PLoS, and make the resulting article “open” in a much more restricted sense (e.g. with restrictions on data-mining). I love the idea of Elsevier’s power being used for good; I don’t see it happening now, but if they can make that U-turn (or let us be charitable and call it a 90-degree turn) then I will be the first in line to applaud.

“Can you provide any data on the “additional costs” of subscription journals versus OA journals? I asked above, and would be very interested to get a sense of the economics of switching to an all-OA economy, what it would cost and what would be sacrificed.”

See for example

Point 1) Really? You’ve never published an article in a journal that offered copyediting? OUP spends an enormous amount every year on copyediting (as did my previous employer CSHL Press). Phil Davis looked at several copyediting studies here:

For Elsevier’s “article of the future”, they were (not sure if they still are) providing in-house artists to create the visual summary figures for each paper. There are all sorts of ways journals compete that go beyond price.

But the point really was that for a researcher, cost of author fees does not seem to be a big concern. I’m trying to recall the recent study that asked authors how they selected a journal for publication (anyone remember this one?) cost was not a major concern. Prestige of the journal and the career rewards offered far outweighed price of author fees. That’s why people will publish in PLoS Medicine over PLoS ONE if their paper is good enough, even though it costs more than twice as much. Again, is a bigger boost toward tenure or that dream job worth $1500? Seems like a good investment to me.

Point 2) Elsevier’s motivations are different from PLoS’. They’re a business, with a responsibility to maximize return. They charge more because the market will bear more. They could, if price was the driving factor, massively cut author fees to a level where they lost huge sums each year, in order to drive the competition out of business. Elsevier could easily weather a long-term investment like this. PLoS and smaller independent publishers likely could not. Be careful what you wish for.

Point 3) That set of calculations is too vague and sloppy to be meaningful. First off, it assumes the entirety of Elsevier’s profit comes from journals, and this is clearly not true. This study, for example, showed that for Elsevier in 2009, “journals accounted for 59% ($1.8 billion) of revenue from the science and health divisions.”
How that translates into profit for all products and services is unclear, but Elsevier is a diverse company doing business in many areas.

Your link also presumes that all articles would be published in PLoS ONE, that the current author fees would be the correct amount to charge despite the massive increase in overhead required. It would also mean a loss of much of the value that journals provide (filtration and designation, described here: ). This would appear to go against PLoS’ philosophy (else why publish their high-end journals) and against the economics they’re showing (that $2900 is not a high enough author charge to pay for the work done by a high-end journal).

Losing these journal services would mean additional costs in time and effort required by researchers to recreate that functionality. That time and effort that could perhaps be better spent doing actual research, so such a system likely requires additional costs beyond those simplistic calculations and has the potential to slow scientific progress as researchers are required to add more non-research activities to their daily schedules.

Reading the links from the article you provided, you get more and more incorrect assumptions made ( beyond the obvious one I pointed out, which takes the results further and further away from reality. Has anyone done a more accurate, serious study on the matter?

A few other comments: do these numbers include humanities articles? Where is the money for the publication of those articles coming from? Can a comparative literature researcher afford the same article fees as a cancer researcher? Is the loss of humanities scholarship another uncalculated cost here?

What about research societies? Such a proposed plan would bankrupt most if not all, as their often-niche journals could not publish in quantities high enough to be sustainable (just as PLoS ONE needed to reach a certain number of articles per year to pay the bills). Yet another unintended consequence and cost that is ignored.

Suffice to say, it’s a complicated issue. I’m all for increasing access, but I want to understand what’s being done before suggesting radical changes, to be sure we’re not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

[Side-irritant: why the heck can’t I reply to David’s comment? I have to reply to its parent instead. There seems to be some completely arbitrary limit of three to thread-length.]

David, I sympathise with your desire to see better numbers than these. As you’ll have noted, both the Poetic Economics article and SV-POW! one begin with corrections. I think this reflects the difficulty of getting the raw data out of commercial publishers. If you know a good source for basic information such as number of STM articles and number of humanities articles published per year by each of the top few publishers, I would love to know it, and do some more well-founded maths with those numbers.

Even if you had an accurate set of those numbers, the complexity of the system makes it difficult to accurately make these sort of broad, sweeping statements. For example, PLoS relies on an all-volunteer editorial staff. If you’re expanding that to encompass all of academia, can you even recruit enough volunteers to cover everything, and if so, then you’re adding an enormous number of hours of work to the system, work that’s now done by paid, professional editors. So how do you adjust for the costs, how many hours per week do the academic volunteers have to contribute, how does their pay per hour compare to that of professional editors and what is the opportunity cost of taking them away from the bench (and remember that you’re dealing with all of academia, you can’t just concentrate on one field like biomedical research).

It also seems wrong to use $1350 as a benchmark figure, since PLoS turns a profit at that price, a profit large enough to cover all their other journals and have some money left over. Wouldn’t you want instead to use a break-even price to understand the actual costs? I don’t think that sort of data is available from PLoS.

And those are just a few of the factors that would come into play. Not sure how you would even start to quantify the contribution that a research society makes to a field, and what the losses incurred would be. That’s why I find it difficult to support any sweeping statement that an OA economy is cheaper than subscription access models (just as I wouldn’t go so far as to say it isn’t). And those sorts of statements are part of the harmful rhetoric that takes away from efforts to truly understand and improve things.

(for the aside, sorry for that, we’ve all been annoyed with the way WordPress limits the number of threads in comments. So far we’ve stuck with WordPress because of the other benefits provided and likely some inertia, but it’s an improvement I’d like to see as well)

Andy, non-profits are not obliged to disclose their financial records across the board. A university press attached to a private university has no obligation to do so, for instance. Thus, you won’t be able to find out about the financial status of presses at Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.

The difference is that when a journal pays an author is it not in a monopolistic position (I can choose a different journal if I feel the price is exorbitant).

If you have published some work in a reader-pays journal, and I need to read your work there is only one supplier I can negotiate a price with … who without an OA archiving is in a monopolistic position.

Hi David,

Interesting article. However you write “The individual researcher needs to make that call based on his own priorities.”

This is at odds with the essence of the RWA which is about whether or not society should choose a system of publishing that gives more value back (OA). RWA is about if society should offer the bargain to researchers “you can get money for research on the condition you make sure to publish in a way that is compatible with our goals”.

RWA is not about researchers choices it is about the choices of the people who fund researchers.

On the contrary Anders, RWA says that society, not the federal government, should make this decision. RWA takes the federal government out of the issue by prohibiting a federally mandated solution.

Taking your arguments to a logical extreme, should the government be funding research at all? If it serves a societal need, won’t the free market take care of it?

Indeed, there are those who argue that non-military research is not a federal function, but I am not one of them. Moreover, I am making an observation (about RWA) not an argument (although I support this action). I am not against federal action on principle, just very cautious about it. I prefer markets to central planning and it seems to me that the marketplace is precisely where the OA issue should reside. A lot is happening without federal intervention, which is a strong argument against such intervention (now I am arguing).

Moreover, if there is actually some driving societal need for free research results (which I doubt) then federal research reports will satisfy that need.

There is also the elephantine fact, which no one seems to mention, that one can always ask the author for a copy of their article. Most journals include email addresses with their open abstracts. I do this frequently and have never been refused.

“Indeed, there are those who argue that non-military research is not a federal function, but I am not one of them.”

Surely whatever the federal government funds is a “federal function”, and recipients of federal grants accept them on that basis? Anyone who doesn’t like the idea of their work being a federal function always has the option of not applying for the grant, after all. It seems strange to suggest that a granting agency isn’t at liberty to make acceptance subject to any condition it chooses.

Mike, you may have missed the point at issue regarding federal functions. The issue David C raised was whether the federal government should be funding research at all. There are in fact people who argue that it is not a proper federal function to do so. Federal function is a Constitutional issue, having to do with the proper, legal scope of the federal government. That the government in fact does certain things does not settle the issue, as those who argue for a narrow construction of the Constitution claim that the government is doing a lot of things improperly or illegally. This issue is beyond the scope of the RWA OA issue.

As for what conditions a granting agency may impose, we are talking about the US Federal government, not a private foundation. The Federal government cannot in fact do things that are arbitrary and capricious, as a private grantor can. Individuals and foundations are not bound by the Constitution.

For example, suppose the Federal government tried to impose the condition that any article based in some way on federal funding can only be submitted to an OA journal. One of the UK Research Councils has just such a rule. I suspect such a rule violates the free speech protections of the Constitution.

I’ve mentioned the “get the article from the author” alternative frequently, picking up that point from Stevan Harnad, who once called it “the fair-use button” but dropped that nomenclature after I objected. It really isn’t difficult at all to track down authors especially if they are affiliated with institutions, which usually post e-mail addresses for all faculty by department. Of course, this isn’t to say you’ll always get a timely response!

I think you’re conflating two separate things, though both are worth discussing.

Question 1: Is a funder mandate the best method for increasing access? Is it legal under current IP law? Does it cause damage to the current system of publishing and is that damage offset by the good gained here? That is indeed a question for funders, and perhaps for courts. After that decision is made, there’s still a matter of researcher choice–do I agree to the requirements that come along with the funds? If the funding agency forbids me and my institution from profiting from technology transfer from the IP developed under the grant, I may choose to look elsewhere for funding.

Question 2: Regardless of whether a mandate for OA after an embargo exists, the individual author still needs to make a decision as to where to publish their paper. The NY Times and Guardian cited articles both suggested one publish in an OA journal, rather than that of a commercial publisher. What I’ve tried to point out here is that the two are not mutually exclusive. Many OA journals earn profits that go directly into the pockets of private shareholders. Furthermore, there are other factors that should be considered, particularly whether the funds spent on publishing should stay within the research community (via university presses and society owned journals) or whether it’s okay for them to be siphoned off by private companies (though supporting one’s society may end up also benefiting their private publisher partner). That’s a decision to be made by the individual, although the reality of the matter is that most researchers are going to choose their journal on the basis of maximizing career reward rather than any of the issues above.

Yes, I agree that “commercial” is conceptually orthogonal to “open access”. So with the sensible OA mandate from funders a researcher still has to consider something like

1) A commercial OA publisher. Eg. BMC
2) A non-profit OA publisher. Eg. PLoS
3) A society OA publisher. Eg “Molecular Systems Biology”

Well, given the current NIH public access mandate, the author has a much wider set of options given that the article merely must be made freely accessible 12 months after publication. So that opens up pretty much every journal on earth that’s willing to adhere to those conditions for NIH-funded work.

And if you’re talking about an OA-only from the beginning mandate, then add in every hybrid journal from every type of publisher as well.

“The issue David C raised was whether the federal government should be funding research at all. There are in fact people who argue that it is not a proper federal function to do so.”

I see. That does change the discussion significantly. I suppose there is no real discussion to be had with someone who believes this; I for one won’t try to engage the notion that a government should not fund research.

“For example, suppose the Federal government tried to impose the condition that any article based in some way on federal funding can only be submitted to an OA journal. One of the UK Research Councils has just such a rule. I suspect such a rule violates the free speech protections of the Constitution.”

I can’t imagine any interpretation of the phrase “free speech” that would sustain such a notion.

You are of course free to publish your research wherever you wish, and under whatever terms you wish — or indeed not to publish it at all if you prefer. The constitution certainly guarantees you this — so long as it really is your research. But as soon as you accept money from anyone (federal or otherwise) to do the research, then you are beholden to the contract that you make with that entity. If you don’t like the contract you don’t enter into it; if you enter into it, you adhere to it. That has no relation to freedom of speech, any more than an employment contract that limits your right to tell trade secrets.

For the record, that suggestion was meant as a rhetorical question to tweak David Wojick’s Libertarian leanings, not as a serious proposal.

And it worked, eliciting a sub-thread on Constitutionality, which I think plays into this issue. But my libertarianism is small “L”, since capital “L” denotes the party. My career has been working with and in the Federal government, including keeping the regulators under control (no small task). The Federal government has a natural appetite for power, fed by people who think it should solve every human problem and meet every human need. This is apparent in the OA movement.

That is a pretty pathetic statement from a Toll-access shill. Keeping in mind that Toll-access publishers rely on the massive federal regulation and enforcement that is copyright.

Also, the fact that the mandate is a simple contractual agreement – conditions for accepting federal funds – is something you seem to try to avoid admitting.

Great post! You introduce some nuance to the debate that I find lacking in most.

But for me, the point of the matter is that the federal government is one of the largest funders of research. It is research that, like you say, is not immediately and completely the property of the people, but the use of public funds should have some requirements for the greater good. The bill makes it impossible for government agencies to disseminate research to the greater community. It means life-saving research that should be accessed by the most, at the expense of -quite frankly- the rich few.

I honestly don’t see much “value-add” that journal publishers bring to the table. At one point, they did a lot to physically disseminate information, but that’s no longer necessary. You point out that there are a myriad of different organizational schemes where profits and power shift between societies, publishers, and authors. I appreciate that, since most articles on the subject seem to assume a homogenous field of institutions. But even if there are many different organizational schemes, the RWA would push towards a more closed system when what we should be working toward is a more open system.

I and my fellow authors at Cyborgology have written on similar subjects in the past:

Thanks. I’ve not seen much research showing that those who can directly apply research literature to saving lives do not have access to that literature. Most studies I’ve seen show that the research community is pretty well connected. Anything you can provide would be appreciated.

Michael Clarke’s article still stands up pretty well as an explanation of the value a system of journals provides:

From my point of view, it really comes down to a cost/benefit balance. For every researcher I know, time is the most precious commodity. Scientists are overworked and facing a constantly increasing set of demands from the institutions that employ them. To make progress, one has to very carefully choose how one spends one’s time. Any minute spent away from doing research needs to be assessed. That’s why labs hire someone to wash the dishes and make the media–this frees up researchers to spend more time doing experiments instead of mundane daily maintenance tasks.

Publishing offers similar benefits–it brings a valuable system of communication, dissemination, registration, validation, filtration and designation. Likely each of these things could be done by individual researchers on their own. The question though, is whether it’s worth their time and effort. Most scientists I know want to spend their time being scientists, not being copyeditors or chasing down tardy peer reviewers. Outsourcing these sorts of things means more time spent at the bench which means more progress, which is good for society.

But as noted, it’s all about balance, and there’s a point where the cost of a particular activity makes it better done by the researchers themselves, or a point where the benefit offered isn’t good enough. And finding that balance is how we determine the future of science communication and publishing .

Well, how do you define “research community?” Because I think there are a lot of people that would like to read, and would benefit from, access to journal articles that are behind paywalls.

You assert, ” more time spent at the bench which means more progress, which is good for society.” I would put a big astrick on that statement by saying that a healthy bit of critical reflection, periodically, is essential. That means revisiting those jobs that have been pushed off to rank and file lab workers. Are we institutionalizing a practice that is good for society, or is there a better way to do this? Which brings us back to academic publishing-

While I understand companies like JSTOR are not publishers, its not like publishers are constantly fighting to get out from underneath these sorts of aggregators and search engines. In fact, they rely on these companies as part of their business model. And its absurd to have to pay AGAIN for the article that a university has already spent money writing, proofing, and reviewing. You are saying that publishers do a lot of this work, but in many cases they don’t. Its still the research community thats doing it.

I really liked this article in The Atlantic, and I think it does a better job than I could, of outlining the problems:

RWA does not make it impossible for government agencies to disseminate research. It just makes it impossible for them to disseminate subscription journal articles. They can, and should, disseminate the reports of the research that they already receive. Nor is there anything in RWA that aims to kill open access journals.

You’re right, there isn’t anything that explicitly kills open-access journals. But, like I said in my post, it does create a powerful chilling effect on that sort of activity. Its the unintended (or, in this case, less-than-intended-but-probably-expected tertiary effects) that I am worried about.

For the record, PLoS does more than publish. They advocate for all scientists through their policy arm. Re: the economic point, take a look at Arxiv and see how they handle things in math and physics. They provide sustainable, reputable, discoverable access for far less.

Are PLoS’ activities and expenses in this area described in detail anywhere? I’d love to learn more.

It does kind of overlook the complexity of the system–are you boycotting journals owned by Elsevier, or are you boycotting journals owned by your own research society that are published by Elsevier? Is this the right approach, or would you be better off having the members of your society put pressure on society governance to either change the terms for the journal or change publishers altogether?

I think there’s also a telling quote in that article from one of the researchers, stating that none of this is based on actual data, rather, it’s mostly about feelings and guesses. It’s so disappointing to see scientists whose professional careers are based on strict adherence to conclusions supported by data turn into emotionally driven assumers when it comes to the world of publishing (see our previous posting on the value of professional editors for another example:

“It’s so disappointing to see scientists whose professional careers are based on strict adherence to conclusions supported by data turn into emotionally driven assumers when it comes to the world of publishing.”

I think that what we are finally seeing in action here is what Scott Aaronson wrote about back in 2006 in his review of The Access Principle:

In the past few years, there have been many detailed analyses of the rise in journal prices over time, the cost per page of one journal versus another, the tactics of the publishing companies, and so on. A website by John Baez and an open letter by Donald Knuth provide excellent starting points for those who are interested. In my view, what’s missing at this point is mostly anger — a justified response to being asked to donate our time, not to Amnesty International or the Sierra Club, but to the likes of Kluwer and Elsevier. One would think such a request would anger everyone: conservatives and libertarians because of the unpaid labor, liberals because of the beneficiaries of that labor.

That anger has been brewing for some time. The RWA has provided a condensation point and now it’s starting to condense into something tangible — as seen in the the 2700 pledges so far on

I agree that anger (much of it righteous) is the driving force here. I guess I just expect more from scientists, and it’s disappointing to see them responding in an uninformed, kneejerk manner.

These are complex issues–journal prices have risen, but at the same time, journal sizes have increased and the numbers of papers being submitted have steeply increased, leading to increased costs which often go unseen. Bundling of subscriptions is also not so black and white. It originated from librarians as a way to cut costs and expand access, yet it’s morphed into something else over the years. And every publisher does things a different way, so it’s hard to make blanket statements.

If a boycott of Elsevier is indeed the right reaction, I want it to be an informed reaction. If you’re going to publicly call for this action, then go to your institution’s librarian and find out about usage levels and the prices that you’re paying for that publisher’s journals. Look specifically at the individual journals you’re boycotting–who owns them, are there other pathways where you could exert more influence and change things?

This is a sensible comment. If you’ll look through Gower’s blog, you’ll note that there is a bit of discussion of pressuring editorial boards to resign or switch publishers, too.

A boycott is rarely without some collateral damage, but they’re also only effective when very tightly focused. While other publishers may also share blame, it we split the boycott among them, it would dilute the efficacy of it, and it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that they were the one picked. Even if you accept the argument that “all the bad stuff we used to do is behind us” (see the fact remains that they were a huge donor to the co-sponsor of this bill. So it is leaving out some worthy targets, but I’m sure those folks are watching closely what happens, and that may be enough.

On collateral damage from the boycott, see this post (from last year — I wrote it before the RWA was announced, in relation to my own reviewing boycott of all non-open publications):

I hope that this article and the many others like it will go some way to showing David and others that we are not “responding in an uninformed, kneejerk manner”, but have thought through the issues in significant detail. (It’s hardly surprising that that nuance gets lots on the boycott register, where people’s messages are mostly limited to ticking three checkboxes.)

And I echo DRGUNN’s point that boycotts are only effective when very tightly focused. Thoughtful discussion and balanced reasoning on scholarly publishing are out there for those who care to search for them. Buy a boycott page is not the place to look.

P.S. 2735 and counting!

William and Mike–I think that the RWA is arguably justification enough for this sort of action. The point I’m trying to make is that it dilutes the argument when other half-thought-through reasons are brought into the picture, particularly when those making the arguments haven’t even bothered to do the research and have the facts ready to make the argument. It’s something no scientist would accept in their professional sphere, and I find it dismaying, if not insulting, that they think it’s a reasonable approach to matters in my professional sphere. When someone declares that a working-scientist editor is better than a professional editor, I want to know that there’s an actual justification for this statement rather than a gut feeling. Ditto for declaring the “big deal” to be hugely problematic. I’m not saying either argument is unjustified or wrong, I just want people to be able to back things up with data, rather than feelings.

William–targeting makes sense. You could target things even further, focusing on publisher-owned journals within a company, though that may get a bit too confusing for those looking to participate.

I would suggest that there may be more leverage to be found (at least for society owned journals) in working with the society’s governance and their publications committees, rather than the editorial boards. In my experience, the latter aren’t deeply involved in the business side of things.

Mike–thanks for the link, glad to see some deeper thought beyond the usual rhetoric. The collateral damage I’m speaking of though, is not the damage to the authors you mention, but the damage to the community itself due to the loss of funding for that community’s societies (though the contribution of societies to the community likely varies from field to field). Boycotting a small journal in a niche area can be damaging both to the society that owns the journal and to the field itself, as it may become difficult to publish specialized material elsewhere.

And that’s why I’m advocating working with societies and not-for-profit publishers as a useful pathway. When a journal is literally owned by the community, the community is responsible for determining the practices of the journal. It takes those decisions out of the hands of those outside of the community with different motivations and puts them in the hands of the researchers themselves.

“When a journal is literally owned by the community, the community is responsible for determining the practices of the journal. It takes those decisions out of the hands of those outside of the community with different motivations and puts them in the hands of the researchers themselves.”

Yes. That is why I was so disappointed a year or two ago when the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology stopped publishing its own journal (the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, natch.) and outsourced it to Taylor and Francis.

There’s been quite a bit of thoughtful writing about the unfortunate consequences of the Big Deal. See and for example.

Perhaps you could point out the worst cases of the half-thought-through arguments and unresearched statements that are bothering you and we’ll see what we can do about it.

Meanwhile… we’re over 2800 on!

As those articles point out, it’s a complicated issue. I was referring specifically to the quote in the article David W. linked to above:

Indeed, Mr. Gowers wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle, “I don’t have detailed facts at my fingertips: So many people have complained about Elsevier that I am inclined to believe that there is something to the complaints.”

Gowers’ quote must have been old or otherwise misattributed. From what I can tell by reading his blog, he’s got quite a bit of information behind his position. If he didn’t when he said that, he certainly does now.

William–starting a new thread as WordPress is getting on my nerves.

You may well be right, but if this is the only article some read about the boycott, then the response doesn’t help its credibility. Given that the interview was done by email (a bit hard to misattribute), there’s no reason why one can’t take the time to pull out those facts and respond in a more informed manner. If a scientist read an interview that said, “I don’t have detailed facts at my fingertips: So many people have complained about vaccines causing autism that I am inclined to believe that there is something to the complaints,” the scientist’s response would be skeptical, if not furious.

Mike–starting a new thread to get around WordPress’ annoyances.

There’s a difference between partnering with a publisher to put out a journal and selling off that journal and/or relinquishing all control over that journal. The society still has a strong say with their publisher, and generally they are signed to a limited contract. When that contract is up, the society can renegotiate terms, or put the journal out for bid by other publishers who may better fit their needs.

Partnering can be extremely beneficial to a society, particularly when it comes to open access publishing. OA benefits greatly from economies of scale–it allows one to keep author fees down and still run a sustainable journal. PLoS had to come up with the high-volume PLoS ONE to achieve those levels of scale. For a niche society, that may not be an option. But by partnering with a large publishing house (and this can be a for-profit or a not-for-profit), the society can take advantage of the partner’s size and get those lower costs that make things feasible. That’s why someone like OUP can run a small fully-OA journal in a sustainable manner while a society like the ASMB is struggling to break even with their self-published OA journal.

So the idea is to be active in your society and drive the agenda. I prefer positive actions as I think they’re more likely to be effective than negative actions like boycotts that ask others to make career sacrifices for your cause. The original boycott that kicked off much of the modern OA movement saw very little follow-through from the scientists who signed the pledge. The positive action of creating PLoS was a much more effective action. Doing so allows a smaller number of committed advocates to enact change.

I think the boycott shows that the open access movement is an ideological one, so facts are irrelevant to its devotees. They have opted out of the democratic process.

On the contrary, David, most people participate in boycotts because they feel like it’s the only way they can have a voice on the issue, not having a lobbying firm in Washington to speak on their behalf.

But they are wrong to think that, which is just another example of facts being irrelevant. People do this sort of thing because it is a moral cause for them, which open access clearly is.

I’ve talked to quite a few people in recent days, David, so I know for a fact that not everyone signing on for the boycott is a committed open access believer. Some just like having Pubmed Central around and want to keep it, flawed as it is by the year long embargo.

You can confirm this for yourself if you’ll read the comments on some news articles. The Chronicle or Atlantic would be good places to start, then maybe examine the #hr3699 and #rwa hashtags on Twitter and Google+. Because it’s the internet, you’ll find all levels of argument quality on all sides of the issue, of course, but if you do it in good faith, you’ll realize there are good honest people who have arrived at their position after deliberation and consideration of the relevant facts from the perspective of the taxpayer, the librarian, the publisher, the researcher, the patient, the small business owner, and more.

Or you could just continue to think that everyone who disagrees with you must be, not just wrong, but wrong for the wrong reasons. Your choice.

As an OA advocate I’m happy to agree there is a moral dimension. I think its obscene that most members of the public can’t access most publicly funded research even if they helped pay for it. Particularly in the case of medical research.

Also, its a ludicrous claim that the public don’t need to read articles. Sure it may take more effort to understand something not in your area … but to most intelligent people its certainly possible given some time.

I recognise publishers pay a role … that’s why I’m happy to pay open access charges and I think that many funding agencies are recognising this provides a better return on their investment.

“Obscene” is wildly hyperbolic. The principle underlying the present system is that the public benefits from the advance of science. It has no need to read the science along the way, nor can it in most instances. Your specific case is a good example. The scientific frontier is irrelevant to someone who is presently sick, because it will be many years before the frontier translates into actual therapies, if ever. By the same token someone who is looking into solar energy need not read the latest research into bio-energy, unless they have decades to wait. There are a host of resources providing free information on existing medical and solar technologies.

Keep in mind that the need has to be so great that it justifies using federal force to restructure the industry and shift the cost of publication onto the research community. That it might make a few people feel a little better is not such a need. If there is such a need it has to be demonstrated. I see no rational basis for the moral outrage. wrote: “I think its obscene that most members of the public can’t access most publicly funded research even if they helped pay for it.”

And David Wojick replied ” ‘Obscene’ is wildly hyperbolic.”

David, I keep reading statements like this. But as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart pointed out, obscenity is in the eye of the beholder. And time and time again, people are describing the current scholarly publishing system as obscene. If people see it is obscene, then it is, and your choices are only two: make an honest effort to understand what’s gone wrong in the last twenty years, or stick your fingers in your ears and shout LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU LA LA LA. I am seeing a lot of the latter behaviour from the scholarly publishing business right now. It’s not going to help: all it does is alienate the people who are both your authors/reviewers/editors and your customers.

So when I read statements like: “The principle underlying the present system is that the public benefits from the advance of science. It has no need to read the science along the way, nor can it in most instances”, I react to the contempt and arrogance that drips off them. And so do many, many people. The message is “We’re better than you. Shut up, go away, do as you’re told, don’t imagine that you can possibly know what’s best for you.” Is that a message that’s likely to win friends?

Mike, I believe my statement of the principle is correct, as far as the last 60 years are concerned. If you think the principle has been different I would like to hear your theory. Beyond that, if you think the principle is no longer valid (or was never valid), such that the system needs to be restructured, then you need to make a fact based case. Merely being insulted does not do it.

PLEASE tell me you are joking when you say that ideology is a priori excluded from the democratic process. When you say things like “facts are irrelevant to its devotees”, I can only hope that you inadvertently left your computer logged in and someone else is trolling while masquerading as you. Otherwise, I can only conclude that it really is time for a rally to restore sanity to this comment thread.

You have mixed up my points, Mike. A boycott is opting out, in favor of economic action. Facts are irrelevant to ideologically driven people. They have a cause, which open access clearly is. Attacking a business because a bill is introduced in Congress? I expect to see rallies and marches next. This is a standard pattern for a political movement.

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