Yesterday saw Elsevier withdraw support for the Research Works Act (RWA), and Darrell Issa (R-CA) call open access (OA) “the wave of the future.” It was a singular moment in the machinations over government policies related to scholarly publishing.
The lessons are many — politics are treacherous and prone to backfire; timing is everything; having the best talking point is vital; and timing is everything. Did I say that already?
However, judging from coverage, which generally tilted toward the blog equivalent of firing guns in the air, many misunderstandings of the scholarly publishing world have only become more severe and entrenched as a result of the rhetoric unleashed during this brief and painful interlude, as one article in TechDirt reveals:
. . . these journals . . . [with] their insane set up (free writing, free editing, full copyright ownership, and subscriptions that cost tens of thousands of dollars)
(Just to correct the misperception, the writing is part of reporting science and has indirect rewards; editing is not free; copyright transfer is a way of allowing researchers to return to the hunt; and subscriptions generally cost hundreds of dollars, not tens of thousands.)
Most scholarly publishers are not-for-profit, academic, or both, as we discussed here last year when the tenor of OA arguments ratcheted up. Most didn’t support the RWA. But these facts may get lost in the flame out.
The increases in misinformation and adamant stances from those supporting unfettered access to scholarly articles weren’t secret — they started last fall, and were pretty consistent. Elsevier should have sensed it wasn’t a propitious time to support something like the RWA, if there ever could be a time. Whether you agree with RWA or not, supporting the bill in the midst of an upswing in OA rhetoric was clearly a terrible misreading of the political winds. Unfortunately, because it generated more heat than light, we’re all getting singed by what was unleashed. Backing away was the only sensible move (as many AAP members sensed almost immediately), but there was a lot of smoke damage. And that stinks.
Elsevier, we’re putting the matches away now.