About a year and a half ago, in these pages, I posed the question: “Will the future of scholarly communication be pluralistic and democratic, or monocultural and authoritarian?”. I pointed out that significant players in the scholarly communication landscape are vigorously and explicitly working to establish the monocultural and authoritarian scenario, and suggesting that those of us who want to preserve pluralism and democracy in the system had better be prepared both to make our voices heard and to do the more difficult political work necessary to preserve a diversity of scholarly communication models.
A recent communication from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Roundtable on Aligning Incentives for Open Science (NASEM) brought home this reality to me again, and did so in a way that I think is worth examination and contemplation.
To put the NASEM statement in perspective, imagine getting a group of faculty members to bring a resolution like this to your university or college president:
Jazz is perhaps the greatest musical invention of the 20th century. To a degree unlike any other genre of music, it combines rhythmic complexities and melodic influences from African traditions with the harmonic complexities of European traditions to create a musical whole that is uniquely American, broadly accessible, and in all ways greater than the sum of its parts. Given both the intrinsic qualities of this music and its cultural importance, we the undersigned recommend that, from now on, it be the kind of music taught primarily at our institution, while leaving open the possibility of instruction in other musical forms if needed.
If you balk at that statement, maybe it’s because you think jazz isn’t good music and isn’t worth the sustained attention and support of a university music program. More likely, though, you think jazz is just fine — you may even think it’s great — but you don’t think it’s the only great music there is, and therefore shouldn’t be treated as intrinsically superior to and more important than other kinds of music.
Now consider how you’d feel about bringing your president a statement like this one:
The subscription model is the one that spreads the costs and benefits of publishing most fairly and evenly across the scholarly ecosystem: those who want access to particular publications bear the cost rather than those who don’t, and authors get to retain their exclusive rights as content creators while never having to pay a cent for the publishing service — which means that grant funding can be used entirely to support research itself rather than being redirected to support dissemination. It provides for peer review, collaboration between researchers, and certification of research results. Given the merits of this model, we the undersigned recommend the creation of an institutional initiative supporting subscription-access publishing, while remaining flexible enough to accommodate other models where necessary.
Would a proposal like this make you uncomfortable? It would me. Not because I have anything against subscription-access publishing in principle, but because the proposal itself is so slanted and tendentious. It talks about real benefits of the subscription model, but studiously avoids any discussion of its downsides and costs — like the fact that it largely (though by no means entirely) shuts out those who can’t afford to buy access or who don’t have an institution that can broker access for them, and the fact that the monopoly characteristics of copyright lead to serious problems of price inelasticity in the access market (a fancier way of saying “If you want access to an article published in an Elsevier journal, you don’t have the option of buying it from any other source, which means Elsevier can charge more than they could if they had a direct competitor”). And it misleadingly refers to benefits like support for peer review, collaboration, and certification as if they were benefits of the subscription model itself, even though non-subscription publishing models can provide such benefits perfectly well, while also misleadingly oversimplifying the benefits it provides to authors as copyright holders.
OK, let’s look at one more statement, this one taken directly from the NASEM communication I referenced earlier:
Open scholarship is a key strategy for universities to fulfill their core missions of creating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge for the benefit of society. It provides transparency so that others can validate the quality, accuracy and reproducibility of research, thus building the public’s trust. It enables and expedites collaboration among researchers through sharing of data, methods and tools early in the discovery process. It promotes efficiency, by rapidly informing others of promising avenues of research as well as potential dead-ends… Presidents and provosts are encouraged to work with their academic senates to create an open scholarship initiative that promotes institution-wide actions supporting open scholarship practices, while remaining sufficiently flexible to accommodate disciplinary differences and norms.
Some readers may be bristling because by using the pros and cons of the subscription model as a sort of mirror analogy for the pros and cons of open models, I’m implying that the two models are morally equivalent. Allow me to correct that by stating my position more explicitly: I see the two models as morally equivalent. In both cases, real value is being provided to the world at a very real cost. Subscription and open access models spread the costs around in different ways; in all of these models there are individuals in the system who get something for nothing, and there are individuals who run the risk of being shut out due to a lack of resources. Some models require a shift of resources away from other worthy and important endeavors in order to provide free publishing services or free access (or both) to authors and readers; some models rely on what amounts an ongoing freewill offering from various members of the scholarly communication ecosystem. Open scholarship makes scientific findings quickly and broadly accessible to billions of people around the world — and as long as those findings are reliable and presented honestly, that’s a real benefit. But the lower the barriers to “publication,” the greater the risk that nonsense masquerading as legitimate scholarship will find its way into the bloodstream of scientific and scholarly discourse. And none of this even begins to address the issues of university patent development and technology transfer, both of which would be severely complicated (if not fatally undermined) by a comprehensive institutional turn towards open science and open scholarship principles.
In other words, none of these models fails to provide real and concrete benefits — and none of them is without serious weaknesses and flaws. This is the problem with picking one model or suite of models — such as open scholarship — talking up its benefits, discouraging discussion of its costs, and then urging campus leadership to adopt it as the model that should be universally encouraged (while leaving “sufficient flexibility” to allow others as well).
Of course, there isn’t a single kind of “open scholarship.” The question here is whether the spectrum of varying models of open scholarship, all of them characterized by immediate free access and unrestricted reusability, are always and inevitably morally and practically superior to models outside that category (ones that impose some degree of restriction on access and reuse) and should therefore be put forward as the consistently preferred models.
Allow me to venture my own proposal; unlike either of the examples above, this is a statement I would feel perfectly comfortable bringing to my campus leadership:
Every model of scholarship and publishing presents a mix of costs and benefits. Toll-access publishing models spread costs across the system relatively thinly and connect interest and access in a relatively rational way, and they avoid undercutting research by tying up grant funds in publication costs; scholarship that is “closed” in its early stages makes possible certain kinds of development and institutional revenue generation that are not possible with open models; etc. However, these models also limit access to content, delay the maximum exploitation of potentially valuable data, and locate fee-bearing services in a relatively noncompetitive area of the marketplace. Open models, on the other hand, create tremendous benefits in terms of access and reuse of data and content, making scholarship quickly and globally available and reusable. However, some of these models concentrate publishing costs in ways that put an increased burden on research-intensive institutions; other models marginalize researchers in less-privileged regions of the world, divert significant institutional resources from other priorities, or limit the institution’s ability to exploit locally-created intellectual property. Since no publishing model offers upsides with no downsides, presidents and provosts are encouraged to support a diverse scholarly communication ecosystem by working with their academic senates to ensure that faculty retain maximum flexibility to select the scholarship models that they believe will offer the best balance of local and global benefit, offering institutional support for those choices (including financial support where needed) without artificially narrowing faculty’s options.
Not everyone will agree with this proposal, of course. Some readers may feel perfectly comfortable bringing a proposal to their president or provost that says, in essence, “Scholarship Model X should always be preferred, due to its benefits (and let’s not talk about its costs and downsides).” In which case you should definitely bring that proposal to her. Be prepared, though, to answer tough questions.