Scientific publishing evolved within professional and scientific societies to serve science and scientists. The first journals were founded by scientific societies, a trait that has endured into the present day. Scientists and academics retained control over editorial matters, while delegating some business matters to specialists via professional staff or contracts with commercial publishers. Commercial publishers have also launched journals, recruiting academics and researchers to lead them. Publishers of many different sizes have thrived, launched new journals, and catered to specific and emerging communities and sub-communities. The journals economy has been a filtered peer-to-peer economy attuned to relevance and quality, with authors wishing to be published in the best venues as adjudged by their peers, and with other peers approving or rejecting their works based on the novelty, importance, or accuracy of their work.
This approach has maintained a natural and beneficial independence from funders and governments, which has been honored until very recently. Such an independent position is integral to unbiased editorial work and the social duty of scholarly publishing, whereby editors and brands signal quality and relevance through a review and rejection process that can be slow and imperfect, but which has also worked remarkably well. Failures have been viewed as scandals, underscoring the general reliability and overall independence of editors, authors, reviewers, and publishers.
As part of a peer-to-peer model, journals have traditionally received their funding from subscribers or their proxies (institutions, advertisers), an economic bargain that tilts activities toward reader priorities — relevance, quality, novelty, practicality — while also providing revenues that shield publishers from the corrosive temptations of money streaming from sources not aligned with audience interests.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen a new type of publishing emerge that is at its roots informed by different priorities and supply-side funding. These priorities are funder and governmental priorities. Open access (OA) has provided a conduit for these players and their priorities by its dependence on research funding and utilization of government and funder mandates to achieve its ends. The ties are deep — the first clearly OA proposal, where the term “open access” may have been coined — the E-Biomed proposal — was co-authored by two US government employees at the time. This proposal was even more intrusive than what we have today, proposing government-run submission systems that would farm reports out to “independent” editorial boards of various journals, yet still trump them with publication of even the most borderline information. As this underscores, allowing funders and governments sway over scientific publication funding has the potential to erode traditional editorial and political firewalls, providing funders and governments with a direct line from funding or political regulation to publication.
We may look back years from now and see more clearly how OA was responsible for drawing scientific publishing away from scientists and academics, and putting it increasingly in the hands of funding bureaucracies and government officials. This series is an attempt to look ahead.
As one recent proprietary report from Outsell has stated, “Politics has found us.” The implications of this simple statement bear careful consideration.
This is the first in a three-part series exploring the potential long-term implications of the very important questions facing us imminently as mandates mount and academic centers continue to embrace OA without adequately considering its risks. Today’s post explores recent concerns along with new and possible intrusions of governments into scientific publishing. Tomorrow, I’ll examine concerns over the emerging role of funders. And, finally, Wednesday, I’ll outline how money is being used by governments and funders to coerce and coax a new type of scientific publishing, one which is consonant with their priorities, threatening the independence everyone presumes is an inviolable aspect of editorial decision-making and scientific publishing.
Editor’s Note: To underscore the fact that this blog is not all about OA, another post on a completely separate topic will be published each day so you’ll have something else to read if you’d prefer.
The Intrusion of Governments
Governments have two major attributes — politics and bureaucracy. Both pose risks to scientific publishing’s independence and integrity. Paradoxically, the current meddling in scientific publishing poses a risk to governments’ abilities to adequately fund research and to have the best information available for health and safety policymaking.
Scientists in governments have been a source of activism, which seems particularly non-scientific — they do not wait for evidence, but believe their scientific pedigrees given them the authority to create a priori policies. A recent personal essay about “scientism” captures this trend well:
All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.
This arrogance has been the source of some of the governmental policies around OA thus far, as well as OA activism that has led to governmental activism (e.g., the Gowers petition).
Examples of governmental activism in scientific publishing are all around us — the NIH Public Access Policy, the Finch Report, new EU legislation being proposed, and so forth. At the root of these policies and recommendations lies a dubious concept — that when taxpayers pay taxes, they gain the right to any downstream output of what those taxes were used for. In a recent essay on the Huffington Post by Douglas Fields, Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, argues that this is a perversion of both logic and fact — by no means does paying taxes create rights, and by no means are scholarly journals the product of government funding (yet). He writes:
Why does this twisted logic apply only to science? Newspapers thrive on publishing publicly financed political processes. By the same reasoning, shouldn’t the political results, including outcomes of elections and other publicly funded political activities, be made freely available by newspapers and TV rather than allowing the media to charge for publishing it? If you accept this, what would become of independent and rigorous review of the results of any publicly funded political processes?
At its basis, a government claiming that decisions to fund research creates interests in the scientific publishing industry is clearly overreach. As others have noted here, the government, through research grants, has paid for reports from participating scientists, not for papers published in journals, and especially not for rights to the full-text. OA has the potential to change this. With Gold OA, by paying article processing charges (APCs) on behalf of its researchers or through the grants themselves, governments could make a legitimate claim to published works. They will have, after all, paid for publication in the Gold OA scenario.
More and more concerns are emerging about the insidious and unintended effects of the OA publishing model. A group blog called TheDisorderofThings has authors expressing concerns about the RCUK policy and its implementation, in what it calls a “pay to say” system of Gold OA. These concerns are summarized as:
— It threatens academic freedom through pressures on institutions to distribute scarce APC resources and to judge work by standards other than peer review
— It threatens research funding by diverting existing funds into paying for publications (and private journal profits) rather than into research
— It increases academic inequality both across and within institutions, by linking prestige in research and publishing to the capacity to pay APCs, rather than to academic qualities
— It threatens academic control of research outputs by allowing for commercial uses without author consent
Fields also touches on similar concerns, and worries about the ability to cultivate new fields when scientists aren’t in charge, another theme being sounded by those seeing a consolidation of funding as bad for young researchers or those on the fringe of major academia:
A corporate/government financial alliance is replacing scholarly publication once organized and run by scientists and academics. . . . One wonders how many new advances in science will never have an opportunity to take root now that scientific publication is an increasingly corporate and government business rather than the scholarly academic activity that it was for centuries.
Fields’ concern is confirmed by statements coming from government bureaucrats concerned with budgets and costs. At a recent meeting in the UK, Paul Hubbard, head of research policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is reported to have said:
. . . academics should be made conscious of the costs of publishing and that some people were simply publishing too much. Second, he noted that the Government were keen to use the [Research Excellence Framework] REF to promote open access since the REF was good at getting people to change their behaviour.
Here we have a government official stating explicitly that the number of publications might be subject to budget constraints, and that the government is interested in changing academic behavior and limiting publication rates based on budgets, not quality or merit. Let that sink in for a moment — the government wants to create a scientific publication system where it can set limits on how much gets published, and use its policy frameworks to exert influence over how academics work and share information.
Compare this to the subscription model, where even if only 100 or 500 subscribers can afford to subscribe, the information is published, indexed, and abstracted. There can be no “open access” if budget cuts keep scientists from publishing — that would be the ultimate unintended consequence.
We’re well into a decade of governmental activism regarding publishing policies and practices. Governments are spending money, establishing policies, and enforcing these policies to dictate some of the terms under which our industry operates. This increasingly complex quilt of requirements makes compliance with government mandates a measure of pre-publication acceptability, for authors and editors, and represents a potential threat to editorial independence and author autonomy. It also makes publishers dependent on government funding as OA seeks to strip away the diversified models of subscription businesses and replace them with the limited financial options available via funding sources like governments and commercial and philanthropic funders.
As noted above, government intrusion can come in many guises, but financial aspects are the most palpable. We have already have governmental reviews of prices and publication policies in multiple countries. As economic issues arise — from fiscal cliffs to austerity budgets to currency crises — governmental funding swings hard and heavy and unpredictably. It is not the finely attuned and widely distributed subscription and licensing economy independent publishers have thrived in, one which buffers economic downturns and avoids direct risks. Governmental budgets can vary wildly from year to year, affecting entire industries, not just one or two titles. This is a new and systemic risk we’re courting, and courting it provides no clear benefit to science.
Policy enactment and enforcement provide another example. Recently, the NIH announced it will increase its enforcement of compliance with its Public Access Policy by holding back further funding if papers aren’t deposited in PubMed Central within 12 months of publication. This announcement is interesting in a couple of ways. First, while publishers are responsible for most of the compliance using what is bureaucratically and opaquely termed “Method A” deposit, they are not credited with this in communications from NIH. Second, while manuscripts are adequate to meet the policy’s requirements, the blog post from the Deputy Director of Extramural Research about this ends with, “Keep those publications coming!”
Policymakers often lack follow-through and can easily become divorced from reality. The authors of the Finch Report reportedly distanced themselves from the reality of their own recommendations at a recent conference in the UK:
One of the most curious things about this policy which emerged throughout the day is that it is ostensibly now ‘orphaned’ by its commissioners and designers – the Department for Business, Industry and Skills, and the Finch Working Group. ‘Implementation’ throughout this process has apparently been treated entirely separately to the actual policy itself. Finch herself clearly repudiated any responsibility for the outcomes of the policy, arguing that this is now something for institutions and researchers to negotiate . . .
There is a difference between a well-formed policy — one that satisfies its authors and their sponsors and has all the hallmarks of officiousness and authority — and a good policy, one that will be effective and helpful. A good policy should be based in reality, and use observable facts and measures to guide and revise it. There is little evidence that the Finch Report is based on reality:
. . . much of the report itself seemed to be based on speculation rather than evidence from comparator countries with different policies. Moreover, it is clear that from the perspectives of scholarly authors however, the proposed ‘pay-to-say’ system may be highly destabilising, compromising academic freedom, draining tight research budgets and excluding a wide number of scholars from publishing. These huge issues are however nowhere discussed in the Finch Report, and have not made an impact on the direction of Government policy either.
Governments are placing not only an extra burden on publishers and editors by requiring them to check for or participate in compliance, but is also placing an extra burden on investigators and authors, as this note from the NIH states:
I encourage principal investigators to start thinking about public access compliance when papers are planned. . . . This will help you avoid a last minute scramble that could delay your funding.
Research funding decisions based on significance, novelty, the team’s likelihood of success, and methodological design are sensible and scientific. Now, research funding is becoming contingent on compliance with governmental publication policies. The value of these policies is presumed, but has not been demonstrated. Meanwhile, funding is held hostage to ensure these unproven and half-baked government policies are followed.
The priority government is giving through these policies can be stated as, “We’ll delay further research for active researchers or drain research budgets, thereby slowing scientific progress, because we believe there is some as-yet unproven value in making papers free to the lay public.” This is a political stance, not a scientific stance.
Of course, there are other ways for governments to intrude if scientific publishing begins to be viewed as a captive service industry. How far are some willing to allow government to intrude? Cory Doctorow recently argued that private companies should be required to publish all their research on OA terms because the government regulates these companies — in this case, pharmaceutical companies. I certainly agree with trial registration and making companies accountable for the risks they ask volunteers to take during clinical trials, but that’s a different argument. Doctorow predicates his argument entirely on government’s role:
The reason pharma companies should be required to publish their results isn’t that they’ve received a public subsidy for the research. Rather, it is because they are asking for a governmental certification saying that their products are fit for consumption, and they are asking for regulatory space to allow doctors to write prescriptions for those products. We need them to disclose their research – even if doing so undermines their profits – because without that research, we can’t know if their products are fit for use.
In Doctorow’s scenario, publishers are considered part of the regulatory environment, insofar as governmental activity managing corporations would require publication — that is, if something could be regulated, a publisher would be required to publish any paper about it. Doctorow is moving journals, editors, and publishers squarely into serving as governmental and corporate water-carriers, and away from independence.
The political aspects of governmental intervention are not to be overlooked. This threat is both obvious and subtle. That is, governments will be comfortable funding well-established researchers and research directions, less comfortable funding new, iconoclastic, or revisionist research. If scientific publishing begins to depend overtly on government funding or approval from governmental bureaucracies, these political decisions could shape science intrinsically. There is also the more subtle chilling effect that becomes all the more real if government funding or researcher funding becomes more contingent on meeting governmental policies and bureaucratic requirements.
There is also the asymmetry between author funding and reader funding to consider. There are far fewer funders and governments than there are readers, libraries, and licensors. OA concentrates power by concentrating finances in a few well-funded hands. Governments are one of these power centers OA creates. The value of distributed finances is not to be underestimated as a way to protect independence. If there are thousands paying, no single one has much of a chance of exerting much influence; if there are dozens paying, the odds of coercion go up significantly while the ability to resist falls.
Governments can also be opaque and not open. Nobody knows how much PubMed Central costs per year to run, despite it being funded by taxpayer monies and a public resource. When I broke the PMC/eLife scandal, David Lipman, head of the NCBI, went on record with a journalist saying:
At this time, we don’t think that engaging Mr. Anderson in a public rebuttal is productive.
The hypocrisy of an “openness” advocate who is drawing their salary from taxpayers to answer in this way is stark. There is no part of the NCBI that is not taxpayer-funded, yet it is a black box.
Bureaucratic process is often a priority for governments once the political dust clears. It’s not hard to imagine bureaucrats fashioning rules about which journals it will allow grants to be used for, what their policies for peer-review and publication speed must be, and so forth. Imagine a world in which a government states that it will only fund publication in journals that have, let’s call it “Type 3 peer review” or better. Already, governments are dictating terms of access and what they’ll pay for — it’s not a leap for them to add assurances of how the publishing is done. In other realms, providers of government services have to comply with dozens or hundreds of requirements to obtain government funding. OA has us approaching a slippery slope of bureaucratic entanglements.
By allowing momentum to grow behind a trend that would bind publishers to suppliers rather than users of the literature, and tie our industry to public financing and government rule-making about what scientific publications can and cannot do, we are risking a system of objective evaluation that has served science well as an independent method of publication that is driven by quality. Ironically, governments depend on the products of this objective and disinterested review system to make policies, approve drugs and devices, and monitor public health. At one level, governments are working against themselves by intruding in a process it needs in order to be more effective.
Tomorrow, I’ll explore how OA has allowed funders to get a seat at the table, and how their involvement in scientific publishing is potentially corrosive, setting new priorities for authors, editors, and publishers which are not necessarily consonant with good science or public interests. On Wednesday, I’ll explore how the tool of choice — money — is being used by funders and governments to establish policy and modify academic behavior.