The brain
The brain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good teacher is about more than information.

I say this as another petition to compel open access (OA) publishing is being promoted. A very similar petition failed in March, but this one is being pushed more effectively by the OA partisans. Meanwhile, I’m reading a book that throws a bright light on the difference between access and accessibility.

How these two things contrast is the topic of this post.

As I wrote last August (quoting a terrific essay by Maria Popova from the Neiman Journalism Lab), what OA advocates call “access” is better termed “accessibility” — meaning information can be accessed at no direct cost to the user. Despite accessibility, the information remains inaccessible in any functional sense — they can’t apply it, understand it competently, or put it into context. The information is accessible, but the person has no access to its real value.

As if to prove this distinction between accessibility and access, I came across a recent tidbit that I found shocking. Even though we’ve lived through a decade during which the scientific literature has become more accessible to the general public than it’s ever been before, from free PubMed to Google to no more trips to the library, science education in the United States has suffered immensely, so much so that nearly half of US adults polled do not know that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted.

Clearly, something beyond access to the latest scientific articles needs to be brought to bear.

Publishing is often equated with the simple act of making something public. This is a gross oversimplification. Even Clay Shirky, who should know better, can fall into this trap, saying that publishing isn’t anything more than a button:

. . . “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done. . . . We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.

Shirky later states that editors, writers, artists, designers, and others who help the work take form are important. What he’s calling “publishers” are really “printers” or “mailers” or some conflation of the two — “distribution” perhaps. Even Gigaom takes issue with him, and they don’t print anything.

Publishing is about much more than making something public. It’s about finding content or an artist (writer, singer, photographer) that a constituency cares about or finds interesting, pitching their works correctly for a target audience, cultivating awareness and interest in the work, making the work shine, packaging it for optimal consumption, and sustaining its relevance for as long as possible. Publishing is competitive, so publishers have to create the best venue for the best work. This is not simple. Distribution is also not as simple a matter as you might think. As I write this post, I have five different distribution channels competing for my attention — email, Twitter, Facebook, and Zemanta, a contextual blogging tool. All these channels and many more need to be filled with content. It has to rise to the top in each of them to be found.

Creating and promoting proxies for audiences is one of the things a publisher does. For a book publisher, this can be a title, a series, an author, or an imprint. For a periodicals publisher, this is usually a topic or, in the case of something like the New Yorker, an identity.

In health publishing, finding the right audience for works of a certain type can be tricky, but there are generally three levels of audience — professional audience, specialist lay audience, and education audience.

The professional audience is who we deal with routinely in scholarly publishing, and it includes physicians, surgeons, researchers, some administrators, some lawyers, and some policy people. The language these people expect is highly specialized, the context very important and presumed to be fairly implicit, and the signaling often so subtle that it can be missed by an outsider.

The specialist lay audience is generally a well-educated lay audience with an interest in a particular aspect of health information, whether it’s because they have an interest in a single disease or view health through a specific lens, such as fitness, prevention, or diet.

The education audience is trying to learn about health and medicine. They are trying to become one or the other of the other two audiences, and which they are aspiring to be determines how you address them.

It’s ineffective to treat all three audiences as if they are the same. Even in these admittedly coarse categories, the users are not the same, and the subgroups within each broad grouping make that even clearer.

I’m seeing this firsthand right now, as I read a new book about exercise science called, “The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer,” by Gretchen Reynolds, a blogger at the New York Times.

I’m in the specialist layperson category. I’m a recreational cyclist who isn’t getting any younger or lighter, so I’m interested in extending my years and enjoyment on the bike as long as possible. My lens is fitness. I’ve read many books and articles about exercise, nutrition, physiology, and training. Even so, Reynolds’ book is eye opening. I’m learning things I didn’t know, and am being provoked with questions I never would have thought to ask:

  • Is stretching before exercise really good for you?
  • Does taking ibuprofen after a hard workout actually make you less likely to gain the benefits of the workout?
  • Is massage after a vigorous workout actually damaging?

With more researchers than ever pursuing more questions, it’s not surprising that health information changes rapidly. In fact, this is what makes it so hard to keep track of.

Given our crises in education and cultural knowledge, what’s a bit more concerning than accessibility is that we don’t have enough ambassadors and guides telling us what a batch of these changes might mean to us. Through their distillation of basic research findings, these guides provide access to information. Compared to what they do, accessibility just lays there, doing nothing.

Reynolds has gone through scads of sports medicine, physiology, and medical research, talked with many of the researchers themselves, and organized it quite well into a readable synthesis of what she thinks we now know. It is pitched for the specialist lay audience, with the occasional nod to the education audience — nods that I don’t need, but that are brief enough they are not distracting (e.g., I know what lactic acid is, and don’t need that explained, but because she wants to bridge audiences, she explains it). She and her editor have struck a careful balance, and done it well.

Imagine that all the studies Reynolds summarizes are freely available online. What possible use would they be to me? They would be accessible, but I would have very little access. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, and it would take hours of iterative work to even come up with a way of sorting the information sensibly. I need Reynolds and her ilk to make sense of it all.

To even know what questions to ask, you’d have to be following this particular area of scientific research with a diligence I can’t imagine anyone with a career and family mustering. On top of that, Reynolds actually interviewed dozens of researchers to get their plain English interpretation of research results. It’s all very helpful, makes for good reading, and provides a lot of insights in an efficient manner.

Frankly, this is one thing I find counterproductive about the OA claims that accessibility is what we need. We all know how hard it is to make sense of the world. It takes years of work and interaction to get the right context on a field. Reynolds has been writing about health for more than a decade. To claim that someone with a computer and no paywalls could in moments glean as much from discoverability as she has from hard work and meticulous research fundamentally encourages intellectual laziness — you don’t have to seek information or work to make sense of it; it’s just out there for you to discover. And it’s easy!

This brings to mind the t-shirt making the rounds on social media today — pictured to the left — which makes fun of the implicit statement that free information is all you need to be deemed educated. In fact, whatever contribution Wikipedia or other free online resources make, it’s likely quite modest. The intellectual work of creating a curriculum, guiding students systematically through subject matter, testing or evaluating in an appropriate and rigorous manner, inspiring a hunger to know more, and encouraging further exploration and interaction with source materials is far more important to anyone’s education. Wikipedia is just a sporadically used crutch. The joke is, “We’ve outsourced our brains.”

The next time you encounter someone who helps you make sense of the world, do them a favor — appreciate how much work, care, and thought went into what they’ve done for you. If the author, teacher, or guide does it right, they have taken you beyond the passive realm accessibility creates, with its lazy answers to difficult problems. Authors like Reynolds give us access — entice us, lead us, move us, and reward us with an intellectual experience. This is something the mere removal of paywalls can never accomplish.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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40 Thoughts on "Intellectual Access — It Takes More Than Accessibility"

I agree that accessibility is a very important goal. But I fail to see how it is in conflict with access as another important goal and how in the world restricting access would foster accessibility. I signed the White House petition because it’s the right thing and doesn’t interfere with other right things like accessibility.

  • Kai von Fintel (@fintelkai)
  • May 23, 2012, 8:04 AM

While a semantic point, you’ve reversed “access” and “accessibility” in your comment. “Open access” is about accessibility. What government mandates have done thus far for accessibility includes, fragmented the literature further, created repositories without relevance to audience or specialty, and lowered standards for publication. In these ways, open accessibility as currently being envisioned and realized is interfering with intellectual access — it is making the literature less relevant, less manageable, and less apt to make sense.

OA is not immune to unintended consequences. Already, we are seeing these — more journals, more articles, more frustration among scientists, less reproducibility, and a literature that is getting worse in many ways instead of better. We should pursue quality, not quantity. Right now, we are pursuing quantity, and open accessibility business models and mandates only deepen the commitment to quantity over quality.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 23, 2012, 9:50 AM

Access doesn’t have to be in conflict with accessibility provided that you accept that access costs money – the editors, writers, artists and designers referred to above that enable access (rather than simply accessibility) all have to be paid (I’m aware of my personal bias on this). The costs of accessibility might have been reduced, but the costs of access haven’t, and in many cases they are going up – as publishers attempt to introduce more interactivity.

What that means is the idea that open access will suddenly make publishing free is a fallacy. What will need to happen (and in fact already happens with current OA publishers) is that the costs are transferred from the readers to the authors. That may be a good thing, but for the most part when you consider the academic literature, the readers and authors are the same group of people and the money – while it may come under a different budget line – still comes from the same source.

  • Stephen Davey (@stephengdavey)
  • May 23, 2012, 10:31 AM

But it doesn’t come from the same source. When you shift from reader to author for payment, you switch from institutional budget to research budget for payment, in many cases. This depletes the grant pool for research. The sources are not the same.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 23, 2012, 11:14 AM

Fair enough, but I was thinking about the budget at a higher level than that – most OA advocates argue on the basis that the funding is coming from the taxpayer. It is, and always will be. It’s just that instead of funding libraries, research grants will need to include funds to publish the work.

  • Stephen Davey (@stephengdavey)
  • May 23, 2012, 11:20 AM

Funding for libraries tends to come from tuition and fees. Funding for research comes from the taxpayer.

Also, don’t forget that the NIH, DOE, and other government agencies have the ability to publish the final reports from their funded projects on their websites. The DOE does this very well. The NIH, not so much. The NIH has only a 22% compliance rate with its mandatory submission requirements. The ~$2 million per year it costs the NIH to support PMC is essentially an unnecessary use of taxpayer funds. Here’s how it goes: pay more per grant in order to cover OA fees, depleting funds from the NIH; pay to run a duplicative repository, depleting another $2 million worth of taxpayer funds; and don’t enforce your mandates that could make all NIH reports free to the public via the NIH’s native web publishing capabilities. This seems more like a waste of taxpayer funds than a good use of them.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 23, 2012, 11:43 AM

You made some wonderful points indicating the importance of good mentors and teachers. But I’m afraid I don’t quite get how a robust OA movement runs counter to your points. By all means, Open Access publishing in and of itself won’t fix the serious scientific literacy problems in the United States, but I am not really sold on how it would make it worse.

I think you are underestimating the general readership. Sure, for any given OA paper, the vast majority of the potential readers will find that accessibility alone is insufficient to gain understanding, but there could be dozens, or even hundreds, of readers with extensive specialized training in a relevant discipline that might not have seen the manuscript otherwise.

By way of example, my arbitrarily defined discipline is supposedly part of biology, so by the traditional model I should be publishing in subscription-based biology journals. But, as it turns out, if I did that, then I would miss a huge section of my potential readership, including a lot of the readers that can actually do useful things with my results (largely engineers). There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of people out there that find the information I publish fascinating and practical, but they are scattered across disciplines that would not typically subscribe to each others’ pay journals.

From the standpoint of a reader, I see the same effect. I discover new things from the OA publications of those in other fields. I do glean useful information; not as much as the original researchers, obviously, but enough to give me insight into something fundamentally different from what I am used to, which has (on multiple occasions) then inspired a new effort within my own core research. I read the subscription-based papers from these other fields when I can get them, but of course I rarely have accessibility to subscriptions supposedly “unrelated” to my field.

  • Michael Habib
  • May 23, 2012, 10:45 AM

It’s a huge distraction from what really matters — i.e., experts making sense of new findings and incorporating them — and feeds this illusion that accessibility is sufficient. And accessibility is not an absolute for any publication I know of beyond classified government documents (and Wikileaks kind of got around this for a while) — money makes things accessible, from food to fuel to information. The problem is that we’re spending all this time making mandates for accessibility while primary education is being gutted, the OA business model (which promotes quantity over quality) is being promoted over a user-centric model which is fouling the literature (I believe), and standards for publication are being lowered. I don’t think that makes for a more intellectually approachable or sensible world.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 23, 2012, 11:12 AM

In matters military it is often observed that we tend to “fight the last war;” we allowed the Vietnam experience to inform Iraq, and we’ll use the Iraq experience to inform some future conflagration, and the conclusions will almost certainly be misaligned to the specific challenges. Not sure many terrorists are trying to sneak liquid C4 through security but by gum, they won’t do it in my shampoo bottle.

So it is with OA, the advocates of which are fighting their own “last war.” Their promises of an educational utopia predicated on universal “free” access to scientific literature would be more apt 30 or 50 or 100 years ago, when scarcity of basic educational raw materials (depending on the vintage, of books, or of pencils, or of running water) was the immediate hurdle.

“Alas,” scarcity no longer presents as the chief complaint; instead, its unexpected antipod GLUT has suddenly reversed millennia of info-economic assumptions. Accessing raw data is a commodity process in our age, and value has migrated to other, more sophisticated outputs.

The aggravating distortions and misinformation and little lies promulgated by the OA brigades are as thoughtful and mature as a temper tantrum. They may wreak havoc on the economics of NGO-driven research, and more ominously may shift the ratification of value away from consumers and towards producers. But they have no hope of improving the education of professionals, and no use for the specialist laity.

  • Thane Kerner
  • May 23, 2012, 11:10 AM

Kent, I think we all agree that there is a difference between being narrowly able to access a document, and truly being able to access its content, and that our goal should be the latter. But what you see as a distraction – the push to make the scientific literature available to anyone – I see as the best way to increase access [sensu Anderson] to the science. Indeed, this is one of the major reasons I got involved in the open/public access movement.

I think the difference in our views ultimately boils down to different visions for how to make the scientific literature accessible. In your view scientists and the scientific literature exist in a technical bubble but because of the inherent complexity of the topics they are studying and the results they are producing; and making this information truly accessible requires an interpretive layer produced by a caste of editors, writers and journalists who distill the relevant information into a form digestible by people who lack the training, time or interest to do it themselves.

While I think the best writers, journalists and editors are a fantastic resource, I believe that we should train researchers themselves to better communicate what they are doing to the public, and that primary reason that few scientists devote even a small fraction of their energy into effectively presenting their own research to the public, is that they do not think of the public as an audience. And I believe that better public access to the scientific literature will ultimately change this, as papers become an actual vehicle by which researchers and the public actually communicate.

I don’t expect every scientist to all of a sudden connect to the public through their papers – although a lot of scientists have untapped skills in this regard. But once the literature is available, I believe there will be a strong selective force driving scientists to not rely on intermediaries to make their work accessible. Most scientists want their work to be seen by a wider audience, and, once they see colleagues taking advantage of publicly accessible literature to connect with the public, they will be driven to do so as well. It also seems likely that disciplines that do a more effective job of conveying the importance and success of their field will find getting funded easier. And, I think scientists will also find that learning how to be more effective communicators will improve the impact of their work within the research community.

Will all of this happen? Obviously, I can’t say for sure. But I hope you can see why I and many others see public access to the scientific literature as a distraction in the push to make science accessible, but as our best hope to achieve it.

  • Michael Eisen
  • May 23, 2012, 12:08 PM

“Despite accessibility, the information remains inaccessible in any functional sense — they can’t apply it, understand it competently, or put it into context. The information is accessible, but the person has no access to its real value.”

Gee. Thanks. Nice to feel appreciated.

It appears this whole post boils down to: I (as not-the-primary-audience) won’t understand it’s “real” value, therefore, I don’t deserve access. Which is untrue, arrogant, condescending, short-sighted, and if you really want to popularize science, you’re unlikely to experience much success with the attitude on display here.

It’s true I’m not a scientist. It’s true I don’t understand everything I read. But it’s not true that I cannot use much of the information that _is_ available in papers, and I know I’m not the only one. And if you want to popularize science, you’re not going to experience much success by shutting people like us out.

The entire value of a publisher is to make things public. And if it’s taxpayer-funded (in any proportion) it should be available without question, without issue, and without cost.

  • ScottE
  • May 23, 2012, 12:45 PM

The entire value of a publisher is not in making things public. Making things public is trivial, and that’s one of the main points of this post. Making rough ideas into great ideas, expressing them well, matching them to audiences who can use them or would find them interesting, doing this consistently, attracting the best teachers/guides/interpreters to tackle tough subjects, ensuring the independence for fierce-minded people with something important to say, and assuming risk for them — these are things publishers do. They used to use printers and mailers to make things public (and libraries and bookstores), but now they use the Internet. The other things have not gone away, and this was only a partial list.

I have no problem with experts using expert tool sets. Information is a tool set. Expert information is best utilized by experts. There are risks otherwise. I have had to, on more than one occasion, talk someone down after they’ve read a scientific article incorrectly. I have modest expertise in analyzing the medical literature and studies in general. I make no pretense about needing access to the broader scientific literature. I can’t do squat with it. I need and want another form of science writing and interpretation. There’s no shame in that. Even the best scientists would admit that the barriers between fields make this kind of translational reading very important. And the #1 source of information remains “colleagues.” There’s nothing like someone talking with you to help you make sense of something. Two experts are better than one.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 23, 2012, 12:58 PM

This doesn’t just apply to medical research, though. It also affects people looking to get into paleontology, or mathematics, or astronomy. Some of the best paleontologists out there don’t have their PhDs, yet they rely on the same studies and technical literature as fully tenured professors, and contribute significant material of their own to the community at large.

  • Raven Amos (@alaskanime)
  • May 23, 2012, 4:20 PM

The entire value of a publisher is not in making things public. Making things public is trivial, and that’s one of the main points of this post. […].

This makes little sense to me; it apparently runs counter to the etymology of “publish” (to make something public) to say that making things public is somehow “trivial.” It’s a final step in a process, sure, but it’s the whole point of the process. Otherwise “publishing” isn’t the term to apply to the ‘value addition’ you describe.

[…] Expert information is best utilized by experts.

Of course. Now can you think of any uses expert information can be put to by people not in the same (or even similar) professions?

I think you mentioned the dismal state of scientific literacy. Have you ever argued with a creationist in front of an audience? Do you know how useful it is to be able to grab a paper describing speciation and show it to them, to show them the process of science as it is explained by the authors? In their own words?

Try doing it without access.

Am I convincing my opponent? Probably not. But the exercise isn’t just for my opponent’s benefit. Do I always have 100% understanding of the procedures described in the paper? Nope. Am I using the information in the manner that it was intended? Almost certainly not.

Now does that really matter?

There are risks otherwise. I have had to, on more than one occasion, talk someone down after they’ve read a scientific article incorrectly.

This… doesn’t really resemble risk; it is miscommunication, but it isn’t what I’d call _risk_.

I have modest expertise in analyzing the medical literature and studies in general. I make no pretense about needing access to the broader scientific literature. I can’t do squat with it. I need and want another form of science writing and interpretation. There’s no shame in that.

Nor would I have suggested there was. But it’s also not a limitation others necessarily have (or want); you seem to be suggesting that those of us who aren’t the primary audience must all share in this limitation.

Even the best scientists would admit that the barriers between fields make this kind of translational reading very important. And the #1 source of information remains “colleagues.” There’s nothing like someone talking with you to help you make sense of something. Two experts are better than one.

No question, translational reading is very important (and useful), but it’s not always available.

From further down: I really don’t even know how to respond to the notion that because a small group might possibly benefit from some social policy, the policy should be enacted without regard to the possible downsides for that group or for larger groups.

Question: are these “downsides” legitimate issues or are they imaginary? Because they don’t appear to be real to me. By contrast, putting a wall between someone like me and something I could really use does have a tangible negative effect: either they don’t get to read it (possibly compromising a project with outdated information), or they find a way to go around and the publisher doesn’t get the benefit of knowing who’s read it.

  • ScottE
  • May 24, 2012, 1:25 AM

(Amusing that I’m also a “Scott E…” :))

The perceived risk is job loss–potentially massive job losses. Companies–including University Presses–react to revenue declines with layoffs. We work “at will” regardless of how senior or junior we are; we never get anything resembling tenure. And the U.S. unemployment rate is still north of 8%.

Whether or not a broader OA policy would impact journal revenues is a very good question, especially considering that the existing NIH policy hasn’t seemed to, and libraries continued to subscribe to theoretical physics journals long after the ArXiv was established. So I’m not arguing that that is necessarily how it would turn out. But I do just want to give context and explain that is the fear.

(I work at Springer; my opinions are solely my own.)

  • sjepstein
  • May 24, 2012, 7:14 AM

Having experienced layoffs a time or two in my own career, I can well understand this.

But perhaps opponents to open access appear should consider what might result if publishers price themselves out of a market completely. $35 isn’t a good price for a paper, especially if there are potential customers who might be willing to pay if the price is more reasonable.

–Scott Elyard (for distinction)

  • ScottE
  • May 24, 2012, 12:58 PM

I am very strong proponent of better filtering tools in scientific publishing but the argument that we should avoid open access or risk confusing the public is incredibly paternalistic. There are so many aspects of your arguments that I disagree with that I almost assume that this discussion is pointless and that we would never agree anyway. The scientific information is generated by public money and it should be public, there is no argument against this principle. Everything else is a matter of implementation and that can and should be discussed. Yes, the current role of editors and journals is important and goes beyond making the works available online. Given that, lets figure out how to make these roles possible in an open access setting.

You assume that we cannot have open access without descending into a chaos of unfiltered scholarly output and there is no basis for this assumption at all. Google does a fine job of filtering the web for us so why should we not be able to do the same for a sliver of that content ? I agree that the current open access business model requires better filtering tools but assuming that we cannot create them is not sound. You also claim that “regular” people don’t need access but even experts don’t have access to the papers. I work at a top US university and even I cannot mine the literature for associations, citation networks etc. Even if only a small fraction of the population (small companies, curious amateur scientists, etc) would benefit from open access, it is in their right to have access to these.

  • Pedro Beltrao (@pedrobeltrao)
  • May 23, 2012, 2:32 PM

I don’t follow your reasoning. You are not a “regular” person, but someone who can apply for grants and funding to conduct research. It’s competitive, but you seem to be in a good position to compete (top US university, etc.). I don’t know any publisher who wouldn’t give a researcher access to their information for a research project. Have you really tried to approach them with a specific grant in hand and a specific request and been rebuffed?

The “small fraction” argument doesn’t work for me. I really don’t even know how to respond to the notion that because a small group might possibly benefit from some social policy, the policy should be enacted without regard to the possible downsides for that group or for larger groups.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 23, 2012, 2:48 PM

Do you think I could mine the literature to create a citation network and give that away to others ? Let’s say for example that I wanted to create a tool that helps others filter the literature and one “signal” that I would use would be these citation networks. Can you imagine the potential hassle I would need to go through to get this information (make access agreements with all major publishers, negotiate the terms of re-use etc ) ? You don’t think that this stifles research in these areas ? This is just one simple example of many things that could be done with open access to the literature. There are many use cases that would generate medical relevant information from literature mining or businesses opportunities for small businesses. In fact, scientific publishers should be the ones developing these businesses instead of trying to defend their current business model that is not going to last in the long term. Why not make the best of the opportunities provided by the digital era instead of trying to defend closed access ? I put it down to lack of vision on the publishers side (and I did work as an editor for a few months at a Nature/EMBO journal).

The argument was not based on the number of people it was based on the principle of access to publicly funded research. We don’t even know how many people would benefit from open access. The researchers that currently use the literature would benefit for sure from open access and so would some fraction of the general public, either directly by the business opportunities it would create or indirectly by advancing the pace of research. By the way, there are many policies that defend the rights of small groups of individuals.

  • Pedro Beltrao (@pedrobeltrao)
  • May 24, 2012, 4:02 PM

I don’t know if you could create a citation network. Why don’t you do it? You state you’re at a major academic center, so you certainly have enough access to enough of the literature to demonstrate your capabilities. I can’t imagine what “hassle” you might have to go through, but I know other academics who have done it quite successfully and shown amazing trends. So, why don’t you follow in their footsteps. They didn’t need open access. They had clear hypotheses, were able to test them, and demonstrated results. If you’re just going on a fishing expedition, that’s much less compelling.

You may know that 93% of academics state in surveys that they have adequate access to the literature. What problem are you trying to solve?

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 24, 2012, 4:17 PM

Actually, Kent, the contracts most universities sign with most publishers explicitly forbid this kind of use of papers obtained through university site licenses. Are you suggesting Pedro break the law?

  • Michael Eisen
  • May 24, 2012, 5:03 PM

Are you talking about text-mining? Also, it’s easy enough to get permission for research projects, in my experience, as long as the project has a purpose. As I said, these things exist, data can be had, I’ve agreed to help with research projects like this in the past as a publisher, and most publishers are non-profit, academic, or both. I think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 24, 2012, 5:37 PM

As Michael said I don’t have permission to do so. I would have to contact each publisher and negotiate some contract for data mining and re-use. This is not trivial to do at all as I have learned from a colleague in attempting to do so with Elsevier. Assuming I worked for a company with a profit interest it would be most likely impossible to achieve. This was just an example (e.g citation networks for literature ranking) of the sort of applications that could be achieved with open access. I have worked in the past with mining of abstracts to find gene functional associations and I can assure you that there is very clear medical and economic value that would be gained from open access.

In any case, I think I was right from the start and our points of view are too different for a conversation. I honestly think science publishers are wasting business opportunities because they are blindly defending a business model that might just collapse beneath them.

  • Pedro Beltrao (@pedrobeltrao)
  • May 24, 2012, 10:44 PM

Yes, I think doing something you want to do is sometimes difficult, and I don’t resent that. You feel differently, and blame those who aren’t completely oriented to making the world easy for you. At least, that’s what I’m getting from these exchanges.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 25, 2012, 6:55 AM

Pedro, just a point of information, which I’m only going to mention because the “It’s all publicly-funded” thing keeps coming up, and it is actually empirically untrue.

Pointing out that this is not true is not an argument against OA, it’s just a misconception I keep seeing.

According to the NSF:

“The business sector continues to account for most of both U.S. R&D performance and R&D funding.

“The business sector performed an estimated $282 billion of R&D in 2009, or 71% of the U.S. total, drawing on business, federal sources, and other sources of R&D support. The business sector itself provided an estimated $247 billion of funding for R&D in 2009, or 62% of the U.S. total; almost all of which supported R&D performed by business.
The levels of business R&D performance and funding were both higher in 2008 than in 2009 ($291 billion and $259 billion, respectively). Even with the decline in 2009, expanded business spending has accounted for most of the nation’s R&D growth over the last 5 years.
The academic sector is the second-largest performer of U.S. R&D, accounting for an estimated $54 billion in 2009, or about 14% of the national total.
The federal government is the second-largest funder of U.S. R&D, providing an estimated $124 billion, or 31% of the U.S. total in 2009.”

This is at

Like I said, that’s not in and of itself an argument against OA–I can think of lots of reasons why corporations might want their R&D people–when they publish–to publish (gold) OA. Positive corporate publicity, for one.

(Transparency–I work at Springer, my opinions are solely my own.)

Scott Epstein

  • sjepstein
  • May 23, 2012, 4:55 PM

Scott. The stats you quote are also misleading. While it may be true that 71% of research in the US, the overwhelming majority of that research is not published – and was never intended to be published in the first place – and is thus completely irrelevant to conversations about publishing.

I don’t know precisely how the numbers break down in the published literature, but a cursory examination of the author lists of journals suggests that a substantial majority of published research was funded by governments and publicly-focused research foundations.

  • Michael Eisen
  • May 23, 2012, 7:21 PM

Michael, mostly I was just picking a nit… 🙂

I was actually initially curious about these stats—and I honestly expected the ratio to be the other way around—because I mostly work with materials science, lasers and optics, and electrical engineering, where I encounter a good proportion of researchers working in—or more frequently with—industry.

  • sjepstein
  • May 23, 2012, 8:25 PM

Certainly not true for research in the social sciences and even less true for research in the humanities. So, how do OA advocates make the case for opening access to research in these fields where government funding affects a very small proportion of research and publications?

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Jun 4, 2012, 10:26 PM

The scientific information is generated by public money and it should be public, there is no argument against this principle.

US Congress would beg to differ. They created a law called the Bayh-Dole Act that deliberately keeps scientific information private to create incentives toward discovery. That’s why universities and researchers can patent the results of their research, create start-up companies, or license the patents to industry. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that you reference Google in your comment, a company based on NSF-funded research that is notoriously secretive about the algorithms developed at taxpayer expense, and which has profited richly from keeping them secret (as has Stanford University).

The idea that everything the taxpayer funds must be freely available to all taxpayers is a poorly conceived argument, quickly refuted by everything from small business loans to nuclear missiles to the NY City Subway system, funded by taxpayers but still charging an access fee. There are superb and clear arguments in favor of increasing access to research literature. This is not one of them.

  • David Crotty
  • May 23, 2012, 6:12 PM

“deliberately keeps scientific information private”

I’m missing something. Bayh-Dole *requires* that funding recipients file for patent protection if they elect to retain ownership — patents and patent applications aren’t private or secret, they are published online.

So what part of the NSF-supported information is secret — and how is that legal under Bayh-Dole?

  • bill
  • May 23, 2012, 9:40 PM

There’s a difference between “private” and “secret” (and as you note, the term I used was “private” as opposed to the original commenter’s “public”). Patents certainly keep knowledge locked up and private. It may no longer be secret, but it is not available for public use. It seems absurd to demand free access to only to the papers written about research results while ignoring the actual results themselves. Shouldn’t access and use of the actual results be more important than the paper written about the results?

As for the public availability of everything Page and Brin developed during their NSF-funded research, you’d have to ask them if every single result, every single algorithm was made publicly available, and ask the NSF about their enforcement policies.

  • David Crotty
  • May 23, 2012, 10:07 PM

(A) I disagree that patented information is not available for public use. The *point* of patents was to encourage inventors to make the information available for use! The deal is supposed to be, the inventor gets a limited-term monopoly and society gets an accelerated R&D cycle. So by extension, I would argue that Bayh-Dole is aimed at accelerating the R&D cycle by *exposing* information, not locking it away.

(Bad behaviour by patent holders — refusal to license under any or reasonable terms — is a whole ‘nother question, of course. In Bayh-Dole patents, though, the Fed automatically has a license, so presumably could step in.)

(B) Results vs papers about those results — I don’t disagree with the principle, but OA is not trying to solve every problem. In particular, it’s not trying to do anything about patents. We are only talking about papers that taxpayer funded authors have already chosen to publish, that is, they’ve already decided not to patent or that publication won’t hinder an application. So access to those papers IS access to and use of the actual results.

(C) Re Google — so we agree that if Google has profited by keeping secret information which should, under Bayh-Dole, have been made public, then that was illegal. NSF enforcement is another problem that OA isn’t trying to solve. The petition is just saying that whatever NSF-funded *papers* Brin et al decided to publish should be publicly available.

  • bill
  • May 24, 2012, 12:09 AM

Patents can swing either way. There are so many examples of them being used to thwart progress that one can hardly just think of them as something that’s automatically going to be licensed. Apple trying to take every other smartphone off of the market (and refusing to license their patents to other companies) immediately springs to mind, as do pharma companies that require an exclusive license to manufacture a drug, losing all interest when it’s possible to make generics.

You’re right that this is perhaps separate from OA, you can certainly do one without the other. But I have a hard time with people who refuse to “eat their own dogfood” as it were. It’s completely hypocritical for an institution to issue an OA mandate while at the same time locking up the actual results of the research described in those papers behind prohibitive patent paywalls. If openness is important, than consistently stand behind it. It’s hard to get cash strapped universities to give up the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars they’re making from technology transfer, but if one really stands behind the principle, that’s a necessary sacrifice.

Thinking more about Google, they do have patents, but like most companies, much of their functionality is not included in those patents. It’s often advantageous to not patent things to keep from exposing them publicly (think “trade secrets” like the formula for Coca Cola). I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell, Bayh-Dole doesn’t require the public release of all data from a research project. Researchers must declare their intention to exploit an invention and apply for patents, but I don’t see anything requiring full disclosure. I can think of quite a bit of data I collected as a researcher under NIH grants that I never published or publicly disclosed (because it didn’t go anywhere, not because it had any commercial value).

You’re right that the petition is just about publications, but any reasoning that taxpayer funded things have to be given away freely is specious.

  • David Crotty
  • May 25, 2012, 9:46 AM

Others have responded below already. If researchers want to patent a discovery I accept that. I think that a lot of the intellectual properties rights actually hurt innovation but this is a very different discussion. If a researcher chooses to publish their research then the publication should be freely available to read and re-use. As others have said , patents don’t inhibit the spread of information at all, they give a temporary protection to the holder of use of that information for financial gain. As a researcher myself this would not stop me from building on this information as long as I am not trying to make money of it. Closed access does hinder the spread of information and re-use.

I any case, I want to re-iterate what I think is a missed opportunity from the part of the publishers. There are very clear business opportunities in open access publishing. Making the information available is only one of many roles of the publisher as you very well know. This is the only role that loses financial value in open access. All other roles (filtering, credit attribution, access tools) are huge business opportunities. What I don’t understand is why doesn’t the whole scholarly community accept open access and laser in on these opportunities ?

  • Pedro Beltrao (@pedrobeltrao)
  • May 24, 2012, 4:18 PM

Those functions exist already, but in a model that ensures sustainability (i.e., cash flow), and puts the risks on the publisher (who has to earn it). OA doesn’t ensure cash flow except by encouraging the publication of more papers. OA assumes no risk, but the authors assume all the risk (e.g., keeping their copyright is a huge risk to authors; the questions about sustainability are a huge risk for authors). OA could potentially lead to an incredible concentration of power in publishing, something that fortunately doesn’t already exist (Elsevier is 17% of the market, and there are hundreds of publishers after them just in STM). All you need is one well-funded start-up undercutting fees, the take all the authors, grab all the papers published elsewhere under CC licenses that allow it, and you have one mega publisher that can jack up prices through the roof. It also puts the focus on the funder and the author to a huge extent, and not the reader or user. Also, if authors had to pay for all the services and functions of publishers, including rejection, copyright registration (which is a hugely undervalued service, despite naive assertions to the contrary), and ongoing migration/improvement/upkeep, OA would become completely unaffordable and really rob grants and funders of their monies. OA has a minor role to play, but it can’t support the entire STM economy, by a long shot. Even OA advocates admit this.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 24, 2012, 4:45 PM

Patents may not inhibit the spread of information, but they certainly inhibit putting that information to use. Think about how the patents on using BRCA1 and 2 for breast cancer screening have slowed the course of both treatment and research over the years. How many researchers have shied away from working in this area because they knew they’d have to pay enormous licensing fees for the technologies, face legal challenges and have no chance of turning their research into medical treatments because they couldn’t get past the exclusive licenses in place? If you believe that the spread of information is vital, then the ability to use that information is equally vital.

What makes you think that publishers aren’t exploiting OA to the hilt? I see a large number of publishers, both commercial and not-for-profit doing quite well with OA.

  • David Crotty
  • May 25, 2012, 9:52 AM

I will not take issue with Anderson on the need for scholarly guidance but is it really a question of commercial publishing or not? It is unlikely that I will find references of value in any domain where I am not knowledgeable. On the other hand, in domains where I have specialist knowledge I am very much in favour of being able to find what I need freely on the net i.e. open access.

  • Lars-Erik Jonsson
  • May 25, 2012, 5:40 AM

Of course you are. The question is whether that’s a) realistic or b) advisable. There are downsides to open access, including a straight line from funders to readers; lower quality standards for many outlets; lack of focus (which makes finding your specialist information more difficult); and the conceit that publishing is just “making it public,” which works against the notion of intellectual access.

  • Kent Anderson
  • May 25, 2012, 6:52 AM

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