Readers of the Scholarly Kitchen (or of any number of professional listservs, magazines, journals, etc.) may have noticed that questions about scholarly-communication reform tend to be, shall we say, vexed and controversial. Having participated in these conversations for 20 or so years now, and having recently gotten home from a conference that dealt specifically with such questions, I’ve been thinking a lot about why feelings run so high when we talk about them. I think some of the reasons would include the following:
- They are tied up in troublesome questions of right and wrong. When Person A speaks of the public’s right to have access to scholarly products that were created on the public’s dime, he’s invoking a moral principle: that charging for access to such products represents an inappropriate tax on access to what really should be treated as public property. When Person B responds that publishers add value to those products at their own expense and ought to be able to recover that value by charging for access to them, she’s invoking a moral principle too, and it’s one that has a similar authority to the one invoked by Person A. The fact that these two moral arguments, both of them defensible, lead in opposite policy directions is one example of the kind of difficulty we’re all wrestling with every day when we think about changing the structure of scholarly communication. This dimension of the conversation makes us uncomfortable, but unfortunately the issues don’t go away just because we don’t like talking about them, and we keep having to deal with them anyway.
- They involve multiple stakeholders with conflicting goals and desires. Conflicting goals and desires isn’t the same issue as conflicting moral arguments. This issue isn’t about what’s right and wrong, but about different people wanting mutually exclusive things. Libraries want to be able to give their patrons access to everything they need; society publishers want to underwrite membership benefits; for-profit publishers want to maximize returns; authors want to place their work with publishers whose imprimaturs represent a recognized seal of high quality and rigor; and so forth. There are clear tensions between at least some of these goals — maximizing publisher returns and maximizing patron access are obviously not perfectly compatible. And while all of these participants in the system want other things too (for-profit publishers often have a genuine interest in furthering science, libraries want to solidify their place on campus, etc.) and not all of those goals are in conflict, the tensions between many of them are real and have a serious impact on our ability to talk about reform.
- The fact that not everyone believes the current scholcomm system is in need of “reform.” I don’t think anyone believes that the current ecosystem of scholarly communication is perfect, but there’s a big difference between seeing things that need improvement and seeing the system as fundamentally broken and needing wholesale and radical change. Those of us who work on academic campuses and try to stimulate discussion on scholarly-communication issues experience more or less constantly the tension between these two views, the latter of which seems more often to be held by librarians and the former of which is very often the one held by faculty. This is especially true if we think of reform specifically in terms of open access. Ithaka S&R has been tracking faculty attitudes towards a wide variety of issues for years now, and the free availability of scholarship is consistently at the bottom of faculty respondents’ priorities. According to the most recent survey (2015), roughly one in three authors said that it was “very important” to them that the journals in which they publish make articles freely available, far fewer than said Impact Factor or the ability to publish for free were very important; interestingly, that number is down from 55% in the 2003 survey (according to Figure 23 in the report on the 2009 survey). My subjective impression, from long association with individuals across the spectrum of attitudes regarding open access, is that authors’ general disinterest in the issue generates quite a bit of frustration for those trying to raise consciousness about scholarly-communication reform — and that frustration goes both ways. (When our new dean arrived on campus and met with the president of the Academic Senate, the first thing the president said to her was “We’re not going to talk about open access.”)
These and other controversies in the scholcomm conversation go some way towards explaining why the tone of that conversation gets so testy sometimes: people come to the conversation with different conceptions of what’s right and wrong, different (and often mutually exclusive) goals for the future, and different fundamental understandings about how bad things are right now. These controversies also, I think, help to explain why the loudest voices in the conversation about reform have been those of libraries and publishers — and why the voices of authors have been largely absent. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more concerned about what seems to me the increasingly conspicuous absence of scholarly and scientific authors’ voices from the conversations about what will be done with their work.
I suspect there are multiple reasons for the general absence of authors’ voices. Four of them may be these:
- Authors are individuals who don’t really have an organization to represent them in their capacity as authors. This means, among other things, that scholarly authors don’t have a handy way to put talking points together and present them to the world as a group. The fact that there is no organization called The Authors makes it harder for authors, as a group, to speak loudly about anything.
- Authors are a widely disparate group with different priorities. Scholars of 18th-century Spanish literature don’t necessarily think about publishing in exactly the same way that astrophysicists do, and for that reason the two groups may see the benefits of the current system and the concept of “reform” quite differently. Multiply those differences across the huge number of disciplines and subdisciplines in academia, and you have a recipe for quietude, even on initiatives and policies that might impact authors in different disciplines in similar ways.
- Authors don’t understand the issues. I realize that may sound like a bold and maybe condescending claim, but I don’t intend it that way. If scholarly communication were a car, then authors would be like car owners and librarians and publishers would be more like car mechanics. Most car owners know how to drive, but can’t do their own car repair because they don’t fully and intimately understand how engines and drivetrains work. Nor should we expect them to; that’s not their job. Similarly, scholarly authors are always experts in their academic fields, but rarely experts in copyright or publishing systems or access models. Their main job is to produce knowledge and write it up, not to design journals and create access policies. What this means, for example, is that if you ask a randomly-selected faculty member to define “open access” you’re likely to get either a blank stare or a definition that differs quite a bit from the one accepted by librarians and publishers (not that there’s universal agreement on an OA definition among them, either). Ask that same faculty member to describe what Creative Commons licensing is and how it works, and you’re even more likely to get a blank stare. Again, this isn’t a criticism of authors; it’s an observation about necessary divisions of labor and expertise within a complex scholarly-communication ecosystem.
- Authors, in their role as authors, are not being invited into the conversation. This is the factor that I actually find disturbing. In my direct experience, the suggestion that authors should be invited into the conversation often creates discomfort and even resentment among the current participants. And yet it seems to me that if the scholarship we are talking about represents the original work of actual people whose rights and reputations are likely to be affected by the outcomes of our conversations, then it probably makes sense for those people to have a place at the table where the conversation is happening. Of course, as noted above, the fact that authors are not a monolithic entity makes it difficult to select representatives from the population of authors. I’m not sure that the difficulty of doing so absolves us of the responsibility, though.
I’d be interested to hear from commenters on this issue. Is it real? If not, is it because authors are better represented in these conversations than I think, or is it because authors don’t actually need to have as active a voice in these conversations as I think they do? And if the issue is real—if we generally do need more authors to be involved—how might we achieve that?