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Complexity and Misrepresentation in the New York Times

New York TimesReading the Sunday New York Times on 13th March I came across an article by Kate Murphy, entitledShould 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.

About Robert Harington

Robert M. Harington is Associate Executive Director, Publishing at the American Mathematical Society. Robert has the responsibility for driving strategic growth and management of the AMS publishing program for books, journals and electronic products. Robert also serves on the MathJax Steering Committee. Robert came to the AMS from the American Institute of Physics, where he served as Publisher, successfully leading AIP's move away from its traditional role as a provider of publishing services, moving on to focus on serving the publishing needs of its member societies and AIP's own journals. He has forged an international career working in both non-profit and commercial settings, with rich experience across the United States, Europe, and Asia. Robert holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Oxford, and a first-class honours degree in chemistry from the University of London. The AMS has maintained an active publishing program for over 100 years and has established a reputation as one of the top publishers of advanced mathematics in the world, with over 3000 books in print, 23 journals, and Mathematical Reviews(r) (MathSciNet(r)). The American Mathematical Society was founded in 1888 to further the interests of mathematics research and scholarship, and serves the national and international community through its meetings, publications, advocacy, and other programs. The Society's offices in Providence, Ann Arbor, and Washington, DC employ 210 people. There are over 30,000 individual members and 570 institutions worldwide that benefit from membership in the Society.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Complexity and Misrepresentation in the New York Times

  1. I am traveling today, so may be a bit slow on approving moderated comments. Please bear with us, your patience is appreciated.

    Posted by David Crotty | Mar 16, 2016, 7:55 am
  2. SciHub is sleaze, make no mistake about that but I would take issue with your statement that copyright is “designed to stimulate freedom to create, protecting creators in their ability to produce content without fear of that content being misused, or stolen”. The constitution of the United States is pretty clear that the purpose is “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” US Constitution Article 1 section 8 It is the authors and inventors, not the publishers or their business models that copyright is intended to serve. It was the Statue of Anne in 1710 that was all about profitability for publishers.

    Posted by Collette Mak | Mar 16, 2016, 9:21 am
    • What is sleaze about wanting the world to have access to the latest developments in research as opposed to only those fortunate enough to be actively involved in academia? someone poor in a far off land or perhaps right here in america could come across one of those articles and have something pertinent to offer….access of scholarly articles to the masses can only be good for science…

      Posted by Γρηγ όριος | Mar 16, 2016, 8:03 pm
    • Part of the “exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” is the right to license out part of the copyrighted work, or to allow a license through which the copyrighted work can be accessed. So to assume that publishers somehow whisk away the copyrights from authors is false. Part or use of the copyright is exchanged for services and licenses which present a benefit for the original copyright holder.

      Posted by Nick | Mar 17, 2016, 1:33 pm
      • Have you tried to negotiate with a publisher to *not* sign over copyright? I had to get special lawyer-approved contract and managerial-level intervention when I told a large publisher my article was already placed in the public domain so they were free to publish it given it was accepted to be so by the editors of a journal. It took over a month of negotiation. Giving authors a click-through online form with no apparent alternatives is, if not “whisking away”, not much better if authors know of no alternative, even one less exotic as the one I took.

        Posted by DR | Mar 17, 2016, 9:53 pm
  3. The article in the New York Times failed to mention programs like HINARI, AGORA and OARA. Member publishers provide access to thousands of journals to developing countries.

    Posted by Julie Harrington | Mar 16, 2016, 9:27 am
  4. The NYT article had a slant, but it did in fact point out that SciHub is unlawful and is presumed in Russia to avoid the reach of the law.

    Posted by Chris Mebane | Mar 16, 2016, 10:38 am
  5. “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. ”

    Would be interested in any figures/stats around how many Editors are paid/unpaid.
    Also interested in it varies between disciplines.

    Also, would a buy-out for treaching time need to go to the institution (that will need to pay others to cover that teaching) and not to the editor themselves?

    Posted by chriskeene | Mar 16, 2016, 10:43 am
  6. I too read the NY Times article and found it remarkably uninformed. The Gray Lady usually is much more careful in researching articles. Thank you for pointing out the many problems. I hope you draw a reply from the Times.

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Mar 16, 2016, 11:09 am
  7. “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.”

    I think this needs saying a lot more. The reward for reviewing (for free) is having your own papers reviewed for free. Peer review is an approximately quid pro quo service that academics provide each other. The service provided by journals is peer review *management*, which ensures that academics receive their reviews in a timely manner and that reviewers can provide feedback without compromising their anonymity.

    Posted by Tim Vines | Mar 16, 2016, 12:18 pm
    • I think that understates what journal editors do. It’s not just “peer review management” — ideally, it’s quality control. Sure, there have been some serious failures in this that have been well-publicized, but the bottom line is that someone has to be accountable for quality. Absent an editor, who is? No one has been able to come up with a better system. In addition to quality control, a good editor (in concert with a good publisher) can have a role in the direction of research taken within a field and perhaps even in developing and promoting new fields of research (in concert with academic societies).

      Posted by Pamela Nadash | Mar 16, 2016, 1:41 pm
  8. I am not fond of money, even when I have it. I’d rather live in a Star Trek world (or galactic quadrant) in which money does not get in the way of achieving dreams and hardening skills. But a question or issue came to mind while reading here: there’s not simply the matter of using others’ words and efforts but of using them well. Good use that I think includes attribution for principle and for practicality. How does money fit in? When one is working in a professional discipline (or as a professional who is disciplined), one pays dues for peer organizations’ memberships and for relevant, high-quality–relevant-quality–resource materials. This provides, for good or ill, an expectation of quality in what we pay for. And an expectation should be behooved of quality in our use.

    The for good or for ill apart is about covering costs. Should the cost of access be covered one by one? Or should there be positive, cross-discipline negotiation of research costs, access costs, and costs for use (say, of copyrighted material). I think it is at the latter level where better paying arrangements can be realized. Between schools, member organizations, libraries and other resource exchanges, and journals.

    Thank you for raising the exigent issues and encouraging the eschewing of extremes in approaches and in attitudes. (Sorry for so much alliteration–one way to retain thought, I imagine.)

    Posted by clcouch123 | Mar 16, 2016, 2:02 pm
  9. Happy Freedom of Information Day! Just saying.

    Posted by clcouch123 | Mar 16, 2016, 2:19 pm
  10. Your main complaint about the NYT piece (which I found rather well balanced) seems to be that “the piece neglected to mention that Elbakayan’s Sci-Hub violates existing law — as such, it is illegal”. Did you miss the very opening statement of the piece? It says “Elbakyan is believed to be hiding out in Russia after illegally leaking millions of documents.” Murphy goes on to quote Peter Suber — generally acknowledged as the de-facto leader of the open access movement — describing Sci-Hub as providing “Unlawful access”. I don’t really see how much clearer the piece could have been.

    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.

    This is true, of course; but uncontroversially so. I’m not sure it’s a very interesting point to make. The issue is not whether it costs something to publish scholarly papers (it does and everyone knows it) but whether they are free at the point of use. No open-access advocate, in saying that access to papers should be “free”, is claiming that the cost of production is zero.

    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.

    That is a truly bizarre statement. It’s self evident that Sci-Hub does do service to some people — if it didn’t, no-one would be using it. You need only skim the comments on recent Scholarly Kitchen posts to find many people (plenty of them in the developing world) who are finding it to be a lifeline.

    You might argue that the damage done by Sci-Hub outweighs its positive consequences. (I would disagree, but that’s a discussion we could have.) But to claim that the positives don’t exist is completely disconnected from reality.

    In light of your earlier complaints about “fundamentalism”, this is rather disturbing.

    Posted by Mike Taylor | Mar 16, 2016, 7:41 pm

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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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