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A compromise reached in the first battles over open access (OA) yielded the 2008 NIH Public Access Policy, a general agreement that 12-month embargoes on published articles based on NIH research were potentially workable. Many funders used this as a model. The compromise was reached in order to provide the public with access after a reasonable time during which publishers could recoup their costs and any necessary surplus in order to remain viable. But the current OA battle — which seems even more strident and ill-informed than the first — is pushing to reduce the embargo period to six months, most notably through the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which would cut the embargo time in half and increase the number of affected agencies by a factor of 10.

Last week, the Association of Learned, Professional, and Society Publishers (ALPSP) released a study entitled, “The Potential Effect of Making Journal Articles Freely Available in Repositories after a Six-Month Embargo.” Library subscriptions, the life blood for most academic journals, were the focus of the study. The results are striking. The damage would be quick and considerable, with 44% of libraries cancelling some or all scientific, medical, and technical (STM) subscriptions, and 65% of libraries cancelling some or all social science journal subscriptions.

It’s clear that such a move would hurt secondary titles first, with all publishers suffering some, but some publishers suffering the most. That is, journals already at risk of cancellation or hiding inside Big Deals would be more vulnerable, and small publishers of lightly used niche titles could fail entirely. I don’t think this is something anyone wants to see happen. As one respondent put it:

I would hypothesise a simple continuum, with a relatively low risk for high-quality/high-impact/reasonable-price STM journals and a relatively high risk for many journals from the humanities, with the social sciences (from harder to softer) in between. But in any field, it would be most risky for overpriced, low-impact journals.

Of course, the study will be subject to all the usual accusations of bias because it comes from a publishers group. But I can find little in the methodology or results that seems to have driven a certain outcome. The data points seem real. For instance, can you ask a more straightforward question than the fundamental one the study posited:

If the majority of content of research journals was freely available within 6 months of publication, would you continue to subscribe?

In fact, some respondents complained this question was too simple — yet another hint that we have a highly complex situation on our hands, one that the blunt force trauma of mandates doesn’t help.

But the headlines of the ALPSP study aren’t the most interesting part. As is usual with surveys, the verbatims — the statements captured in open field response areas — contain a lot of potent insights. For instance, while timeliness is cited as an important reason to maintain subscriptions, other librarians note that it’s not clear which articles will matter until well after many months have passed. This would make subscriptions harder to justify in an environment in which content were mandated to be free after six months. Therefore, if academics only have to wait a relatively short time before they have free access, they’ll find ways to make that work:

I fear that the six month period is too short to deter cancellation, especially since social software connecting colleagues enables widespread sharing and only one individual needs to have current access for everyone.

While much of the rhetoric about access is about price, it seems that librarians are fairly balanced when assigning blame for the tight subscription market, with more awareness growing that local constraints on budgets are partly to blame (that is, the continued decline in share of budget libraries have experienced for more than 25 years).

Another interesting note is that whether OA protestors like it or not, readers and, in this case, buyers of journal content like having materials that are peer-reviewed, well-branded, cleanly edited, nicely formatted, and easy to use. The librarians make that abundantly clear in their statements. Print copies are still desirable, both for their basic utility and for archival purposes.

One respondent noted that even if information is free, it still creates costs for libraries, where it has to be indexed and made discoverable, services that subscription publishers currently provide as part of their products.

I was reminded at a meeting recently of a period less than a century ago when many stalwart medical and scientific journals teetered on the edge of oblivion — the early decades of the 1900s. Many journals went under after a struggle, were absorbed by others, or vanished without a whimper.

When concepts like a six-month uniform mandate are on the table, it’s clear that all of these petitions, protest efforts, and political campaigns are getting close to severely inhibiting the very thing they were meant to enhance — namely, meaningful, efficient, and useful scientific exchanges of research results. And if we remain passive in the face of proposals that have the potential to undermine one of the great accomplishments of the past century — namely, affordable, useful, and reliable scientific information accessible across the globe on a level like never before — then shame on us.

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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.


88 Thoughts on "The ALPSP Report on Six-Month Embargo Mandates — STM Journals Die Slowly, Social Science Journals Die Quickly"

A recent post here rehearsed the story of scholarly journal subscriptions getting more expensive each year and swallowing more and more of library’s budget, driving library’s into lock-in deals that turn predatory.

In comment on another post, Kent took me to task for suggesting that that sometimes things that are more expensive, are not better, just more expensive.

And here we have “library subscriptions are the life blood of scholarly journals” … have you ever heard of the story about the golden goose?

In another forum where I am an equally unpopular visitor, I hear advocacy of free market principles and non-intervention and trashing any conceivable government regulation. I wonder what they would say about “12 month embargos”, “6 month embargos” or any embargo’s at all. Why does this industry need regulations to protect it? Shouldn’t these businesses that can’t survive in the free market just die as quickly as possible?


I think you have a few things backwards. Publishers were in a free market economy before OA protestors began this flawed argument that taxpayer-funded research papers should be free to taxpayers (yet, universities get to keep the IP from taxpayer-funded research, and I still have to pay for parking at the airport even though government bonds paid to build it). What has happened to scholarly publishers is nothing less than governmental intrusion, not regulation (no laws were passed, but governmental agencies, most notably the NIH, inserted itself into the research reporting process, to some degree in order to gain a market advantage for PubMed Central). If making things free made sense in a free market economy, publishers would do that. If not, they would not. I think most publishers would be all for returning to a free market publishing economy, rather than one in which governments and foundations impose requirements on them through researchers and compete with them with duplicative publishing initiatives.

I don’t know which post you’re referring to in your first paragraph. Can you name the title? I don’t recognize it from your description, which seems to conflate two that come to mind.

For many smaller or mid-tier journals, institutional subscriptions are their life blood, or at least so important that if they fell away, the journal would become a burden for the non-profit society or for-profit publisher. The rational reaction would be to pursue other endeavors.

I think your airport parking analogy is false, Kent. Parking fees are used to ration limited numbers of parking spaces. However, the same does not apply to research as embodied in electronic versions of journal articles- these are infinitely reproducible. The OA argument is that, given this is the case, and given that that research is a public good (generally) paid for with public funds, it should be freely available to anyone who might benefit from accessing it.

The parking statement wasn’t an analogy, but a fact. If the logic is that taxpayer-funded goods should be freely available to all taxpayers, and you take that to the point of requiring universities to surrender the IP garnered from taxpayer-funded research and airports to stop charging taxpayers for parking, then you are following your logic. If you aren’t willing to argue for those points, then your logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

There are mechanisms for making the reports funders require from researchers freely available to taxpayers. The DOE does this well, doesn’t compete with publishers, and uses the Internet as it was intended (to link). Why publishers — who organize peer review, edit and format the works for the market in a way the market values, brand the works so there is quality and relevance signaling, and maintains continuity — are dragged into this is beyond me. A clear sign that this is over-reach and provides potential damage is to be found in the ALPSP report.

What I’m not willing to argue is that finite goods (parking spaces) are analagous to infinitely reproducible goods (electronic files), regardless of the source of funding from which they arise.

So, if it were possible to allocate parking spaces in a way that would prevent too many people from being there at once, guaranteeing a perceived infinite supply of parking spaces to users, you’d argue they should be free?

This is easily done — restrict the number of flights from an airport so that there is always excess capacity in the parking lot. Voila! Free parking for all!

Think about it this way — to achieve free parking for taxpayers, you would have to mandate fewer flights for airlines, and you might make many of them go bankrupt; to achieve free research for the public (a move of questionable value), you would likely reduce the number of journals and journal articles, and you might make many of them go bankrupt.

And once all the airlines are gone, you’ll have free parking but few flight choices. And once all the emergent, niche, and mid-tier journals are gone, you’ll have free research, but less of it.

And if you think that OA funder-pays is the answer, remember that you’d be drawing these fees (which would likely go up) from research budgets rather than library budgets, so you still get less research. I really don’t see any upside if you want more good science available for people who know what to do with it.

The point is it’s not possible to allocate parking spaces in this way, whereas it is possible to make research OA without (in my view) your apocalyptic predictions about the demise of good science coming true. I’m sorry if incumbent publishers feel their position is threatened and that the current scholarly publishing regime is the best of all possible worlds, but I’m entitled to disagree with this view, and false analogies between scholarly communications and airports won’t change this.

Remember, these are data and opinions from librarians we’re talking about. Knowing how much it takes to do a good job publishing a research report, I believe the librarians surveyed here are being realistic. They know that mass cancellations would lead to a lot of journals going under. Is this what you want? Less science, and fewer institutions pursuing it?

Her critique is as sloppy as most of her other thinking (she’s notoriously bad at math or looking beneath the surface). For instance:

1. Her complaint about a 26% response rate — this probably gives us a 3-4% margin for error and a 95% confidence interval. What’s her complaint about those rather tight bounds?

2. This point is her conspiracy theory that a missing report from 2006 is a sign of skullduggery because it had different conclusions, was therefore undoubtedly removed, and this indicates bias. But the ALPSP notes prominently on their site that they moved to a new CMS and URL structure in December 2011, so a lot of their old URLs don’t work. As I stated above, Morrison doesn’t work hard enough for my tastes. I found the missing article in about 1 minute (http://www.alpsp.org/Ebusiness/ProductCatalog/Product.aspx?ID=26).

3. Morrison then holds forth on all the other revenue streams for journals, revenue streams which are often capped to barely cover costs (the membership allocation), are unreliable and not broadly applicable (advertising), or author fees (for OA or not). None of these is sufficient, but some are necessary. She hasn’t worked a day in her life running a publication, I’ll venture, and has no idea how revenue streams work, which ones have sufficient margins, or are reliable. An armchair quarterback at best.

4. She claims this was a “publisher-only” study, but it was a good study of librarian attitudes. Her point here isn’t clear, but her partisan attitude is.

Concerning the OA funder-pays model, I really do not see why it should cost more (there are even quite strong evidences it would cost less than buying, e.g. Springer’s journals, at least in mathematics), and the fact that one would have to switch from one budget to another inside the public research system is harmless, as soon as one is reallocating budgets accordingly.

If you think it will cost less and be worth doing, go for it! There is nothing preventing you from doing this, except perhaps the risk, time commitment, and opportunity cost. But it’s a free world. Why just complain? Go and get it done!

I think you have this backward (:-)
If we invented technology so that the supply parking spaces became infinite why would we restrict the number available? The answer, of course, is so that we could charge a non-zero price for them.

Would you say the same for food? If we had technology that made the supply of food infinite, should we seek a way to restrict supply (so that some people will still be starving?)

We have got the economy backwards. The object of business activity (or of “worK” if you prefer) is to produce the goods and services we need to survive (and do whatever else we want to do with our lives beyond just survive). We should take advantage of goods and services that can be provided for free (as in “without work”) rather than restrict use artificially.

@Kent Anderson: but I am going for it, and not alone, even if this is not my job. Why assume the contrary?

You must know that the academic publishing, because of the inertia of journal reputation and their role in evaluation, is a very captive market; that’s why I do not want to let your words that the present system is so good, that librarians are so happy with it and so afraid of changing the publishing system without response. This kind of discourse is exactly what big publishing companies need to continue without too much competition a very profitable business, and I do not think it expresses the truth, at the very least not an academically universal one.

I’ll have to stop commenting now, because of lack of time (which, I see, is apparently less of an issue for a publisher of a medical journal).

I finally have time to respond to this little wisecrack. I had some time this morning to respond to comments because I was on the Acela. Let’s see, I was up yesterday at 5:30 a.m. to get ready to give a presentation (I’d been rehearsing it the night before until after 11 p.m.), gave the presentation in the morning, attended meetings and worked remotely the rest of the day, was at a business function last night until about 10 p.m., finalized this blog post while watching the Celtics and got to bed around midnight, was up at 4:30 a.m., and spent some time responding to comments on the train. And, of course, I have meetings until 9 p.m. tonight, then another meeting tomorrow at 9 a.m., an editor visiting Friday, etc. So, yeah, publishers barely lift a finger.

As for the current system, I’m all for improving it, and have been doing my part in this for 20 years — launching online-only sections and online-only journals; major services that are now commonplace; new publications readers wanted; popular features; etc. Talk is cheap. What have you done besides talk? Maybe improvement isn’t going to happen in the way you imagine, which is what the ALPSP study hints at — that there’s less of a problem in need of a radical solution than you like to think, and that the audience seems to want improved quality as much as anything.

“I don’t know which post you’re referring to in your first paragraph.” – I couldn’t find it quickly either. One of your cooks is a from a librarian organization (I don’t remember his name), and it was a couple of paragraphs not well identified in the post’s title. Posted probably in the last week.

But never mind, I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I have read in several places people writing from the librarian POV that the journal price rises are eating more and more of their budget. (And when it’s a publicly funded library buying public funded research at an ever increasing price, I got the burr under my saddle that I argue with you from time to time – that journals are reaping rewards part of which they don’t earn.)

I’d love to finish the debate — have some of the librarian POV readers of this blog say the escalating journal prices isn’t happening or isn’t a problem.

The problem with Free Markets is zero-marginal-cost goods of which “information” is archetypal. There is no model for a economy based on zero-marginal-cost goods. Survival in that market depends entire on preventing the market working properly. It’s another debate I’d like to have to completion.

There actually is a model for zero-marginal-cost goods: free supported by advertising (broadcast TV, free online services like Google). This model works really well for large operations because the fixed costs divided among many, many listeners/viewers/users is small, so the operation only needs to get a small amount of ad revenue per user. But a small/niche operation (i.e., almost all of academic publishing) has to divide the fixed costs over a much, much smaller user base, so each subscriber’s share of the fixed costs will be much higher.

The problem with the new economy of zero-marginal-cost goods is that the market for those goods as a whole wants to push the price to zero because of the big operations, but the small operations can’t bear that price.

Indeed it is a model. And it is working fairly well for Google at the moment.

And of course the problem with zero-marginal-cost goods is non-zero-fixed-costs of the goods, and how to get those fixed costs covered at zero price, and naturally that’s easier with one big operations rather than small ones.

The problem with the advertising-support is that receiving advertising isn’t zero price. It can be a small price, for small amounts of advertising, and (Google’s innovation) it can be highly targeted even to the point that it is a benefit. (If I am actually looking for blue widgets I don’t mind Google showing me where I can get blue widgets).

The problem is that receiving advertising isn’t voluntary. Look at the dismal quality of US commercial TV. Their goal is to stuff as much advertising as they can with as little content and of lowest quality that they can get away with because there’s a captive market. (This contrasts with the UK, where the existence of a non-advertising-funded competitor (BBC) requires that the quality of the commercial TV isn’t too bad — they can’t race to the bottom as they have done here.).
So if you can establish your price “by force” (forcing advertising on people, or subscriptions on libraries), there’s no limit to the price you can force.

Consider the pharma problem. It costs a huge amount to invent a drug and next to nothing to replicate it. In a free market word, pharma is incented to charge high prices to the small number of people who can afford it, and let the rest die. Pharma is incented NOT to eradication a disease (because it kills their market). Rational human beings acting for the greater good would pay the fixed cost of developing an HIV vaccine (or smallpox vaccine) and then give it to the entire world … but free market pharma would never do it.

We need a better way to handle this zero-marginal-cost problem …but isn’t it ironic that the ability to make useful stuff for nothing is a “problem”?

Rational Human Beings Pharma might find a great vaccine and provide it for free, but they’d run themselves into the ground and go out of business pretty quickly. Making one drug and going bankrupt doing it (thus preventing you from making another life saving drug) doesn’t seem very rational for you or helpful for society. If you don’t have a way to cover your costs, you’re unsustainable. I’d rather find a happy medium, where people can get access to the medicines they need for a reasonable fee, so pharma can keep on finding those drugs. I’d rather find a happy medium, where those who need access to information can get it for a reasonable fee, so the industry that helps get that information to you can keep on doing so. Easier said than done, I know, but I do not believe OA is the answer.

As it has been said, you may make the information free, but if you undermine the industry that makes that information legible, readable, searchable, etc. and thus usable, you’ll end up with a whole lot of nothin’ for no subscription fee. Publishers clearly aren’t the only ones itching to kill the golden goose.

Thanks Joel, that’s correct. Rick wrote ” … the ruinous market rate (which has historically averaged between 9-10% annually for STM journals,… “

> But in any field, it would be most risky for overpriced, low-impact journals.

This points makes OA mandates somewhat desirable, don’t you think?
Overpricing is not something that anyone but publishers would want to happen.

> Another interesting note is that whether OA protestors like it or not, readers and,
> in this case, buyers of journal content like having materials that are peer-reviewed,
> well-branded, cleanly edited, nicely formatted, and easy to use.

You generalize much too quick what might be true for some parts of STM, but
is clearly untrue in others. Peer-review is something that is mostly internal to
the academic community, and at least in my field publishers do very little
about it; the branding provided by a publisher (as opposed e.g. to the one obtained
by the prestige of an editorial board) is completely irrelevant to me and all
the colleagues I know; the majority of my colleagues would prefer cost reduction
than editing and formatting — in mathematics, computer science and some parts of
physics the use of LaTeX puts a great deal of the formatting on the shoulders of
authors — and the easyness to use is mostly provided by good cross-publishers
data bases, not really by publishers’ plateforms.

> Print copies are still desirable (…)

I agree on this, but big publishers are not paper-friendly, with much energy
spent to get most libraries subscribe to e-only offers.

The FRPAA certainly has some drawbacks, but I feel that a status-quo in the relation
of the publishers with academic works (namely, letting them ownership of the works,
the journal titles, and exclusive rights to distribute) is the worst possible

Terms like “over-priced” are easy to use but harder to evaluate. In fact, many of the librarians in the ALPSP study note that metrics are only one measure, with faculty opinion, reputation, and other factors contributing to any decision about cancellation. And remember, many of these “over-priced” journals are small, non-profit journals in very niche areas of science that may be just emerging or ready to grow. What is “over-priced” today may be important tomorrow. Are we so cheap and churlish that we will cut off these avenues to save a few bucks? And what about the fact that libraries are getting a lower percentage of university budgets while at the same time universities are benefiting more and more from both the IP of scientific research and the training of too many PhD candidates? If we’re looking for misappropriation of resources and glut in the academic system, I’d propose we look at how administrators can cut funding for information services, reap profits from research, and mislead PhD students to garner more tuition longer. Are universities “over-priced”?

‘Terms like “over-priced” are easy to use but harder to evaluate.’ — There is, AFAIK, only one mechanism that can be deemed to evaluate a price objectively – which is the “free market”. It is that price at which demand and supply are equal with voluntary trades among self interested informed participants.

Zero-marginal-goods have infinite supply — the market clearing price should be zero,

A recent post asked “What are people willing to pay for?”. We also need to ask “How much should they have to pay for it?” …. You are definitely willing to pay for water. How much should you have to pay for it? Should you pay what it costs to collect, clean and pump, or should you pay what you would pay if your only choice is dying of thirst? Anything between the two is a subjective evaluation in which those paying will think it too much and those receiving payment will think it too little. The answer will be determined by market power not free markets.

The same is true of your product – information. Because the price has to be above zero for you to survive (doing what is actually valuable – I don’t dispute that), so you must use market power to protect your price, but from there on there’s nothing stopping you raising the price towards infinity as you build market power. That’s the problem.

Markets only have so much purchasing power. And scholarly publishers are as much about alignment with their readers as anything. I think the OA approach actually has a greater chance of being abused by a big player — let’s say PeerJ somehow uses its $99 entry point to get every researcher to publish there, and all other publishers go out of business because they monopolize the supply side. Once that’s done, they can drive prices up like crazy because they’ll control the supply side. That’s a zero-marginal-goods model, too. Fancy talk doesn’t change reality. Aligning with demand-side markets keeps prices down in general, and non-profit publishers are more sensitized to this than most.

Other things than journal subscription have to be fixed in universities, true, but by no means this changes anything to the problem of the cost of subscriptions. I am not talking lightly, nor without facts to substantiate my claims.

I am responsible of the subscriptions for my math library; to cut down a subscription to a journal that *no one read* in my unit, a journal that alone costs 12000 € a year (around 8% of our subscription budget), our contract with Springer (that not us, but our university foolishly signed) imposed us to subscribe to other journals for the same value. I must say that yes, sometimes “overpriced” is easy to evaluate. We have a number of journals run by not-for-profit organization that cost up to 6 times less (per page) than many big-publishers journals, with a generally better service in particular regarding copy-editing, so it is not very difficult to guess that “overpriced” is more the rule than the exception in the big four.

As someone who pays two college tuitions, I grow weary of hearing the constant cry of poverty among college administrators and librarians. If the library does not have money to buy books and journals, they need to protest to the dean; she is not fulfilling her academic mission.

That’s a stirring sentiment, Carter, but I’m guessing you’ve never had to manage an academic budget and would therefore have trouble putting yourself in the shoes of a college administrator who has to do so. It’s very easy to say to a provost “you’re not giving the library enough money and are therefore not fulfilling your academic mission.” But any money that goes to the library is necessarily going to be diverted from some other area of academic need. A dollar spent on library collections is a dollar that can’t be spent hiring faculty, refurbishing labs, building classrooms, providing financial aid, etc. Believe me, we who work as library administrators do indeed argue our cases strongly to the campus authorities, and very often we get at least some of what we ask for. But resources are limited on every campus, and academic needs are both broadly distributed and functionally infinite. A provost would certainly not be “fulfilling her academic mission” if she simply gave one campus entity (even the library) everything it arguably needed.

Nevertheless, colleges and universities are the wealthiest institutions on earth, second only to the Catholic church. Colleges and Universities have money, and lots of it, what they lack are priorities. Look at the roster of any college and count all the deans of this and that. This is institutional waste and fat. This money should be directed to teachers and libraries.

Carter, you need to educate yourself on the realities of higher-education economics. There are, indeed, some very wealthy colleges and universities out there. Most are not that wealthy, and the administrator-to-student ratio varies wildly from place to place. All colleges and universities do, in fact, have priorities — and as I explained above, that’s the problem (as it is for any institution with lots of needs and limited resources). The library can’t reasonably expect to have a permanent place at the top of the priority list every time resources are being allocated.

Suppose libraries did cancel 50% of their subscription expenses.

They would then spend the windfall on….what?

yes – because’s nothing stopping them increasing their prices without limit (other than exhausting all their customers budget).

See comment above. There’s nothing intrinsic to OA (supply-side) charges that makes them immune to infinite price increases. In fact, given the large size of funders and their position of sunk costs, it might be even more likely.

In the STM space, such a windfall could be allocated to the Get it Now service, which 100 academic institutions have signed up for (see this week’s press release from the Copyright Clearance Center).

I conjecture that the library budgets would simply be cut accordingly. The budget people are not stupid.

I’ve run a good number of cancellation projects, and have yet to experience a budget cut as a consequence.

We are talking about cutting your subscription expenditures by 50%, which I assume is a big number for you. But it is just a conjecture. The only libraries I have experience with are government libraries and their budgets would very likely be cut accordingly. In fact a lot of federal agency libraries have already been zeroed, on the grounds that the Internet can provide the information.

Government libraries are very, very different from academic research libraries. If an academic library were to cancel half of its journal subscriptions and redirect that money to the purchase of other scholarly resources (in the short run, that is — as I mentioned, the annual price increases on the remaining journals would eventually eat that money up), the likelihood that the university administration would cut its budget is very low. Needs outstrip resources by a huge margin in the vast majority of research libraries, so there would be no trouble finding very good use of the money.

I think rising journal costs (whatever the reason for this) have required librarians to prioritize what journals are essential to support the institution’s teaching & research programs. This can be difficult (uncomfortable?) for some of us to do, but it is essential, and it must be a continuous (annual) process. Blaming publishers for producing the journals that you, at one time, considered critical is an empty argument.

They would start buying books again. This is, in fact, what my experience has been at health sciences libraries.

You finish your essay with the following sentence:

And if we remain passive in the face of proposals that have the potential to undermine one of the great accomplishments of the past century — namely, affordable, useful, and reliable scientific information accessible across the globe on a level like never before — then shame on us.

Are you serious? You’re going to give credit for the great scientific accomplishments of the past century to JOURNALS? That is akin to giving credit for the great advances in air travel over the past century to the boarding pass.

Yes, they were there while all the progress was being made. But it does not follow that eliminating them would in any way undermine the actual accomplishment – which in this case is the actual science, not the random title of the journal in which the works were published.

Although I have my issues with the ASPLP study, I am happy to accept its conclusions that a 6 month embargo would threaten the profit margins, and even viability, of some journals. To which I say, GOOD.

What you call a compromise – the 12 month embargo – I call a sellout. A sellout of an unquestionable public good – free and open access for researchers, others who use research outputs on a daily basis, educators and the public – to the interests of a small but powerful group of publishers who long ago abandoned any pretense of working for the greater good and have chosen instead to stake their future and what is left of their credibility on an antiquated business model developed for a technology none of them use anymore.

If moving to a six month embargo forces them to consider other options – or even drives them out of business – it will accomplish exactly what it was intended to do, which is move the bar closer to the real goal, which is not protecting journals, but advancing science – two goals that have long been at odds, and are now all but completely incompatible.

Michael, you misread the sentence. The great accomplishment referred to is the journal system itself, not the accomplishments of the science being reported. That you do not understand the journal system, or its great value, is pretty clear. That you want it driven out of business is useful to know. What is not clear is what you think the alternative system should look like. I have yet to see a viable proposal.

David, I got what the sentence said. I just think it’s completely ridiculous. The journal system is an accomplishment of some sort. But to call it one of the great accomplishments of the past century???? Come on.

And you spend enough time here that I find it impossible to believe you don’t know what I think the alternative system should look like. But just to refresh your memory. I, and many others, believe that up-front payment/open access business model is not just a viable alternative, but a far superior one. You can feel free to disagree, but to suggest we haven’t put forth an alternative is offensive.

Michael, I have no particular problem with switching from subscription to author/funder pays, other than that it leaves the consumers without leverage. But you said the goal was to put the publishers out of business. Changing who pays does not do that, they may make even more money, so you are contradicting yourself, at best. Hence my confusion.

And David, if the journals system isn’t about the underlying science, what is it about?

Michael, your question is incoherent. Human systems are not about anything. Can you rephrase it?

Makes sense to me: The purpose of the journal system is to serve the needs of the research community. I think Michael’s contention is that if the current journal system is no longer the best way to meet the needs of the research community, the current journal system’s own institutional inertia shouldn’t keep it going as-is. (I don’t necessarily agree that the current system doesn’t meet the research community’s needs, but I do agree that the system is only valuable to the extent that it meets the needs of the research community.)

Thanks Joel, if “about” means “is to serve the needs of” then I agree. (As a logician and issue analyst I try not to assume an interpretation when I do not understand what someone says. The world would be better if people learned to say “I do not understand what you just said” more often.)

I see no evidence that the journal system is not serving the needs of the research community. Nor do I see making researchers pay for what they now get free, namely publication, helping them. In fact the typical OA argument is that people other than researchers need access, for example taxpayers and sick people. Thus researchers would be paying to provide access to non-researchers.

You are awfully quick to call out people for not understanding a system you clearly haven’t bothered to study yourself. Researchers neither pay for publication under an open access system, nor do they get it for free now. Both systems involve expenses. And in both systems the primary source of revenue are the funding agencies, universities and other institutions that sponsor and otherwise support research.

My point above was not that I think publishers need to go out of business in toto, but rather that, if they can not adapt to a world in which publications are made freely and openly available at the time of publication, then they are an impediment to science, and should be replaced by other providers who can.

Michael, I think the primary difference between us is that I see public access to research results as a systems engineering problem, while you see free journal articles as a moral imperative. In fact I have proposed a simple solution to the public access challenge, one which avoids restructuring the scholarly publishing industry by force. It is for the government to publish its contract research reports, which several agencies do already. See my proposal here:

I think this is a rather elegant solution. But OA advocates seem to be fixated on journal articles, rather than scientific communication, which is a much broader concept. Moral imperatives tend to be narrow and inflexible.

For the record, my proposal grows out of 8 years of research into the diffusion of scientific knowledge. My team has done some pioneering work. See for example these reports:

“Population Modeling of the Emergence and Development of Scientific Fields” by Luís M. A. Bettencourt, et al.
http://www.osti.gov/innovation/research/diffusion/epicasediscussion_lb2.pdf and

“The dynamics of scientific discovery: the spread of ideas and structural transitions in collaboration networks” by Luís M. A. Bettencourt, et al.

I have been designing regulatory systems for 40 years, from banking to nuclear weapons. Scientific communication is fun, but by no means unique. See

Free access to journal articles is a slogan, not a solution.

David, if it were true that all government-funded scientists were producing reports that contained a full accounting of their research and results in a timely manner, then making them free would indeed be a perfect solution. But this is simply not the case for the overwhelming majority of scientists – it’s certainly not the norm in the biomedical sciences. The reality is that the published literature is, effectively, the only repository of the results of government-funded research. So your grand solution is a non-starter.

You could, of course, propose that people start writing such reports and releasing them in a timely manner. Which I would be all in favor of. In fact we have a word for this. It’s called open access publishing.

And just to correct a misconception of yours. I do not support open access because it is a moral imperative. I support it because I believe it is by far the most effective means of communication for the research community.

I am entirely in agreement with David here. Whatever is happening now with research reports submitted to government agencies, Michael, it seems extraordinary that the government should not be insisting on the submission of final reports on research that is funded. What does the government get back for its funding if no reports are being submitted? That seems like a travesty. Instead of the government intruding upon the private sector and demanding that its value added be made available even though the public has not paid for it, the government should strive to get its own house in order and demand reports as a condition of providing grants; and if reports are not submitted, no further grants should be given to those researchers who fail to comply.

I think this logic fails to take into account the many fields in which researchers are in the minority, practitioners are in the majority. This includes many engineering, geological, medical, surgical, and educational fields.

I was actually intending to include all of those other types of people when I said “research community”:

s/research community/discipline/
s/research community/field/

Kent, Two points. First is that this seems at first glance to differ with the PEER group findings. Am I missing something?

Secondly, a very rapidly growing body of material is coming out of India and China (and Brazil and Russia) that would not be covered by U.S./UK/EU Open Access mandates. Wouldn’t libraries still need to subscribe to the journals to get THAT material? (Which will continue to make up more and more of the content…)

Scott. (I work at Springer, my opinions are my own.)

The PEER group findings are nicely phrased — essentially, Gold OA is OK, with a wink that it might turn out to be more expensive than it is now if it becomes a larger part of the environment. Basically, Gold OA is OK because it might end up costing as much. I think that’s fine from a financial standpoint, but problematic from a “where the money’s coming from” standpoint.

I’ll admit to only scanning the full ALPSP report, but can someone explain how humanities journals are in greater danger from FRPAA than STM journals? Most research in the humanities isn’t grant funded in the first place, and the little federal grant funding there is mostly comes from the NEH which isn’t covered by FRPAA.

Joel, I think there is evidence that the diffusion rate is slower in the humanities. Citations peak later for example. This suggests that a larger percentage of readers will be willing to wait 6 months for access.

How is this a reply to Joel? He pointed out that FRPPA doesn’t not cover the NEH. Do you know of any federal agencies covered by FRPPA that give research grants to scholars in the humanities? Perhaps a few from the Department of Education? The threat of FRPPA is to the social sciences, where NSF funds a lot of research. Of course, this will all be moot if Congress passes the proposed legislation to prevent NSF from funding any social science research in the future!

The ALPSP report talks about the humanities so I was addressing the abstract question, not FRPPA. The FRPPA has no chance of passage. OA is dead in this Congress, and Administration, and very likely will be in the next as well.

A librarian’s perspective. My institution currently spends 100% of our collections budget on fixed costs (journals, journal packages, databases). Any books are bought on limited gift and endowed funds (not doing so well in the current economy). I certainly agree that university administrators should fund libraries more in line with their usual rhetoric of university excellence and distinction, and I can see publishers making a reasonable profit (tough to define of course) for the value they add. But regardless of those questions, the next time our budget is cut and/or journal inflation increases, we’ll be making cuts simply because we’ll not have the money to pay for everything. I do not think our situation atypical, and regardless of the merits of OA or the traditional publishing model, this is the economic climate we’ll all be inhabiting.

“But I can find little in the methodology or results that seems to have driven a certain outcome. The data points seem real. For instance, can you ask a more straightforward question than the fundamental one the study posited”

The problem with the simple single question is the underlying assumption of the question itself. Sure, a lot libraries would cancel a lot of journals if they could get the same material for free. But is it all even close to realistic to think that the majority of content of research journals would be freely available within 6 months of publication if FRPAA passed? (Or if Wellcome Trust and the coming efforts in Europe and the UK achieved 100% compliance? )

Perhaps a more interesting research question would be (or at least a prior question) what percentage of any journal’s articles are the result of U.S. federally funded research (or the other large funders). Maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t know this. But without knowing that, this survey is Chicken Little at best.

My other complaint is the conclusion that everyone should wait until alternatives to open access are developed that are “mutually attractive.” Why not instead pursue alternative business models that provide for open access? It seems to me that most everybody is convinced that open access is a good thing and that the stumbling block is figuring out how to pay for it and sustain it. Why not work in that direction instead of working to find alternatives to open access?

No one is looking for an alternative to OA, but rather for a version of OA that works. Most big publishers are experimenting with author/funder pays, which is the only viable alternative. Most US basic research is federally funded. US output is something like 30% of the global total I think, but could be wrong. That is so much that the US drives the journal bus, as it were.

Except that China is set to pass the U.S. in article output very, very soon.

One approach, it seems to me, to sustaining the subscription business model would be for subscription journals to publish a volume of content that’s needed and not covered by Green OA mandates. India and China come to mind.

The corporate market (especially in applied sciences/applied physics/engineering) also comes to mind, although I think much of what does eventually get published from that source gets published as books.

One strategy would be to get corporate researchers to publish more journal papers. Although I am not sure how/why that would work, as they don’t need a record of journal publications the way academic researchers do, and when they do want to publish, if they publish a book, they get royalties.

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

From Section VII Recommendations:
“It is strongly recommended that no mandate is issues on making all or most articles available free of charge after a six month embargo until has time to understand the issues better and have together taken steps to explore alternatives to a fully open access publishing model which could be mutually attractive.”

“Alternatives” there is attached to “a fully open access publishing model,” not a version of OA.

That sentence is atrocious, but as I read it a fully open model is just one version of OA and we need to consider other alternatives. That is the publishers general position.

That’s sort of like saying “universal health care is only one model for providing health care to everyone and we should consider alternatives that only provide health care to some people”.

Isn’t that exactly the position on healthcare held by a number of people?

Of course. But the various OA alternatives publishers are pushing do not actually provide open access, just as insuring some fraction of the uninsured does not achieve universal health coverage.

If publishers want to push for some kind of hybrid model, that’s their right. But calling it a form of open access is ridiculous.

Dan, you’ve asked a question I myself have asked a few times over the last year and to date no one has really been able to answer. Exactly what % of PUBLISHED research is govt funded? It seems no one knows. Hopefully initiatives such as Crossref’s Fundref (or whatever it will be called) will lead to an answer.

It would also be interesting to know exactly what the threshold of percentage of mandated OA papers in a journal would lead to librarians discontinuing a subscription.

The survey asked “If the (majority of) content” was free after a six-month embargo. But what if only 30% was free after six months? Etc.

Question: I brought up this issue to our chief counsel before I retired from journal publishing. The sentiment then was that Congress might mandate free access to taxpayer paid information, but the academics still owned the copyright to their articles. The only way around this was to mandate an alteration in the university-teacher employment contract so that all rights including copyrights that an academic produces become the property of the university, much like patents for inventions done in university laboratories. I’m not sure if the analogy holds–we never got that far. And we never analyzed copyrights for books. Going further, requiring an academic to give up copyright seems like a stretch, almost unconstitutional. Requiring him/her to give up rights to his/her writing may border on a contract induced by force to the extent a judge would rule it unfair. There’s a legal term for this territory which could explored further. Any comments?

A university is perfectly within its rights to define all faculty writings related to teaching and research responsibilities as done within the scope of their employment, hence regarding them as “works made for hire” under current copyright law. It is only universities’ willingness to forego this option that has allowed faculty to control their own copyrights. There is nothing “unconstitutional” about a university treating faculty writings as “works made for hire”: under this approach, faculty do not own their writings in the first place, so there is nothing to take away.

The university may be well within its rights, but with the current promotion system in place, it would seem against its own interests to attract and retain outstanding faculty on tenure track. This is not to defend the current system, but only to expound upon conundrums. What would you suggest as possible solutions?

If you read the works for hire provision of the copyright law carefully it is not at all clear whether it applies to the scholarly work of university faculty. Some aspects of the definition of the works for hire provision support your assertion and some do not.

Universities have almost universally ceded copyright to their faculty except in very special cases such as when faculty have been given protected time specifically for writing a book or completing some other project with a product that can be copyrighted. If a university tried to claim ownership of the copyrights for their faculty’s scholarly work the faculty would revolt and they in all likelihood would be censured by the AAUP.

There are two parts of the definition: the first part defines “work made for hire” as any work produced by an author within “the scope of his employment”; the other part refers to “commissioned” works and restricts those to certain categories of works as specified in the law. I was talking about the first part of the definition. It is fairly easy to make a case that faculty are hired to teach (i.e., produce lectures and other types of classroom materials) and to do research (publish original works of scholarship in articles and books) within the scope of their employment. That universities have chosen not to include such writings as being produced within the scope of employment has no bearing on whether the law can be construed to apply to them. It does affect judicial rulings, however, in the recognition by judges of standard industry practices to which they often defer.


Do you know of any court cases where a university has required copyright transfer to themselves for scholarly journal articles, and where a faculty member has taken the university to court? I’ve never heard of any, and don’t have access to legal databases to look this up.

Actually, the whole point of insisting on the definition of faculty writings as works made for hire is to avoid having to require transfers of copyright; as works made for hire, their copyrights are owned by the employing university from the outset, and the university is the legal “author.” I remember that at least one university tried to take this approach maybe twenty years ago (Northwestern? Kansas?), but backed down in the face of stiff faculty resistance. I’m not aware that the matter has ever been litigated.

Yes, you can make that case but but I don’t think the works for hire provision is not all that clear when it comes to faculty’s scholarly work. For example, Mary Case’s analysis at the link below.


In any event, the key point is universities almost universally let their faculty keep copyright to their scholarship.

Actually, most academics don’t own the copyright to their published articles: prior to publication, most journals require authors to transfer copyright of the article to the journal. And if this current system isn’t a “contract induced by force,” I don’t see how mandated OA would be.

Joel, they own the copyright as soon as they write it. Then they sign off.

Yes, I get that. That’s why I said the don’t own the copyright to their published work. My point is that if the current standard is to give authors the Hobson’s choice of signing copyright over to the journal or not getting published is okay vis-à-vis copyright law, then I don’t see how OA mandates present a problem.

Your blog post states “I can find little in the methodology or results that seems to have driven a certain outcome”; Kevin Smith has a good summary of some possible objections here.

Elsewhere your post seems to agree with some librarians, noting that “some respondents complained this question was too simple — yet another hint that we have a highly complex situation on our hands.” The simplicity of the survey question has direct bearing on whether there is anything in the methodology or results that seem to have driven a certain outcome.

To be more clear, let’s say that you want to create a picture in which a particular outcome (mass destruction of the publishing industry) seems inevitable. First, you should ask a yes-or-no question where even if people would say yes only under very limited circumstances (cancelling 10% of journals only if 90% of the content was available OA) they are lumped in with people who would say yes under much broader circumstances (cancelling any and all journals if even only a limited amount was available OA). Second, in tallying your results you should lump together people who would cancel “everything” with people who would cancel “some”, without defining what “some” is. A low-impact yes is lumped in with a high-impact yes, combining into one handy statistic that makes it seem as if a catastrophe is on the horizon.

Or, as Smith puts it much more succinctly: “So it appears that the question was too broad, attempts by respondents to be more specific were brushed aside, and then different answers (some, inevitable, cancellations v. sweeping cancellations) were combined to create a picture of disaster with which to frighten policy makers.”

Any complaint about the simplicity of the question is implicitly a question about the simplicity of the public policy approach of OA zealots. So Smith is being disingenuous. The question was prompted by OA proposals, and is a direct result of them. One could easily state, “It appears the policy idea is too broad; attempts by publishers to be more specific were brushed aside; and then different options were combined to create a picture of utopia with which to seduce policy makers.”

Get real, please. The question posed by ALPSP has a clear antecedent. Let’s not play silly games.

Let’s all get real, together: would you like to address any of the points raised? I’ll try again: there is a huge difference between libraries quickly cancelling most subscriptions when only a few articles in a journal are OA, and libraries carefully cancelling a few subscriptions only when the majority of articles in a journal are OA. Lumping those two situations in with each other creates a distorted picture,does it not?

In addition, could you expand on what you mean by “the question was prompted by OA proposals, and is a direct result of them”? It seems that you are indicating that you believe that since the OA mandate is oversimplified, rather than conducting robust research of their own to bolster their position, the ALPSP responded the only way the could have: with an oversimplified question of their own. But please let me know if I’m misunderstanding your previous comment.

I’d be more interested in hearing a substantial response than additional sniffy brushoffs, but your style of argumentation is your own.

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