Reading the Sunday New York Times on 13th March I came across an article by Kate Murphy, entitled “Should All Research papers be Free?“, that looked at the activist Alexandra Elbakayan’s fight “for the public’s right to know by providing free online access to just about every scientific paper ever published, on topics ranging from acoustics to zymology”.
Let me preface my comments in this post by saying that I am not an advocate – either against or for open access. Having said this, when an article is written and published like this I find myself bubbling with irritation at the level of bias and misrepresentation that permeated this piece. For starters the piece neglected to mention that Elbakayan’s Sci-Hub violates existing law — as such, it is illegal. The author may agree, or disagree about whether it should be illegal, but the fact remains that it currently is illegal. At the end of 2015, Sci-Hub — Elbakayan’s creation — was ordered to be taken down by a New York District court. A number of articles have been written here in the Kitchen that discuss Sci-Hub itself (here, here, and here). Because it is currently hosted in Russia, Elbakayan does not recognize the jurisdiction of such a court. Instead, she suggests that the big publishers, especially Elsevier who brought a lawsuit against Sci-Hub, are the ones with an illegal business model.
I do not want to put myself between Elbakayan and Elsevier – a recipe for making Robert Harington resembling some nasty ratatouille by the time both sides have finished with me. My main beef with the New York Times article is that this part of the story was not fully articulated. There are comments made that imply Editors are not paid. In fact, depending on the field and journal we are talking about, Editors may well be paid quite handsomely, with buy-outs on teaching time a common occurrence. How to reward reviewers effectively is certainly something that many publishers recognize is an issue that needs to be addressed, though it is also true to say that for many this is part of their contribution to their academic community.
When an issue such as this that mightily affects academics and students worldwide is raised for public scrutiny, I would have thought it essential to to recognize that the issues are more complex than as represented by rebels such as Elbakayan. It is important for readers to know that the world is not so simple. In fact, as I have written here before, and Rick Anderson has discussed, feeding of the flames of fundamentalism sets this debate back, pitching the big publishers against advocates of open access. There is no question that those of us involved in publishing academic journals and books are running a business. The business of publishing is not designed to exploit the customer, rather serving customer demand. In fact, the business of publishing is intimately tied into copyright. Copyright as a legal concept was designed to stimulate freedom to create, protecting creators in their ability to produce content without fear of that content being misused, or stolen. The business of publishing is intricately intertwined with the academic endeavor, stimulating both research and teaching, as well as entrepreneurial activity that stems from academic research.
From the article one would assume that publishers, be they the big corporations or mission-driven society publishers, are restricting access and not embracing open access. In fact, open access journals are now proliferating, forming a large part of the output of the big publishers, especially in fields where academics are well funded by agencies who can cover the costs that are levied in the form of article processing charges. From where I sit, in mathematics at the American Mathematical Society, there has not been a huge rush to embrace our gold open access options. Of course we are green also. One may ask if diamond, or platinum open access options are more viable in fields such as mathematics, and while there may be some funds available for such enterprises, the sustainability and scalability of such options over the long term are questionable.
I would also say that for many academics who now receive invitations to join bogus, or at least irrelevant journals that are supposedly launching as author-pays open access publications, there is a fairly wide sentiment of “stop it already”. While we need to more thoroughly understand our author’s publishing behaviors, it is likely that for many of our authors, who are not receiving grants from funders, that there is just no way in which they can publish in an author-pays open access setting – and publish they must to progress their field and their careers. This all points to a real need to create new business models that serves the academic community and promote public access to research – and we are not there yet. It is definitely worth noting from a personal perspective, that our ability as a society, with over 28,000 mathematician members, to provide a multitude of services to the mathematical community spanning all aspects of the research endeavor, relies on our ability to run publishing as a business – not a business that gouges – but as we coin it – a sustainable business.
One response to this is to say, as Elbakayan has, that research output should be freely available at no cost. The trouble with this is that there is clearly a cost that someone has to bear. Merely taking content that has been produced at some expense, and in fact paid for by library customers and reproducing it regardless of copyright in a web setting, does not really do service to anyone.
So, to Kate Murphy I say that while there is general recognition that public access is a good thing, and that business models need to emerge that reflect a complexity of needs, supply and demand, please when writing an article such as your recent piece, do not fan the flames of fundamentalism, and recognize that there is a constructive debate to be had.