Open access has been the subject of much talk this week due to the Research Works Act (text here) and requests for information on scientific publishing.
And I’m getting alienated by a lot of the discussion.
First, a lot of the open access discussion seems fueled by a righteous anger about many scientific publishers being profitable private businesses. I’ve tried to get upset over that, and I just can’t. I’m in favour of businesses making a profit. Nor does it upset me that they make money from funds that come from taxpayer dollars. Plenty of businesses get government business and taxpayer money. There are lots of taxpayer funded things that are not generally free to anyone who wants them because they paid taxes. There are still toll roads. Public universities don’t take every student, and they don’t get free classes.
Scientific publishers add value to papers. There’s far more involved in making a good journal than digitizing a paper. There’s website design, server upgrades, copy editing, RSS feeds, assigning DOIs, making sure abstracts get to PubMed. I don’t pretend to know everything that goes on, but I do fear what would happen if scientists bought into “make a PDF and stick it on the web.” I see what happens when scientists self-publish every time I go to a conference. And it ain’t always pretty.
That said, while I am not angry at publishers for running successful businesses, said publishers are annoying me mightily with their refusal to innovate, exemplified by their support of the Research Works Act. While I support your right to earn a profit, publishers, you don’t have a right to do it by trying to get legislation passed that protect your current business plan.
And publishers, when you’re pissing off someone who is kind of on your side...
For instance, would it kill you to sell me an article for $1 instead of about $30? Open access has changed what people think they should pay. You’re not going to be any more successful at hanging on to that model than the music industry was when they tried to keep people buying pieces of plastic to get music.
The emergence of open access has not dented submissions or the profits of Reed Elsevier. The publishers have the opportunity to invest, to experiment, and to provide valuable new services for their readers. “Open access” does not equal “non profit.”
Second, almost all of the arguments for open access have used out the “taxpayer” argument. The most prominent example was a prominent New York Times editorial this week by Michael Eisen. I’ve mentioned that I don’t like the argument (here and here). I think it means a lot to a small number of people, but it doesn’t resonant with me, or, I think, a lot of other academics.
When I keep hearing about, “taxpayers support research,” I keep thinking, “not all of it.” Yeah, I have a chip on my shoulder about this. I’ve published and paid for a lot of stuff out of my pocket. Most of my colleagues in my department don’t have external grants (though not for lack of trying). And sure, you can can say that’s because of the kind of institution we are at (between the lines: you are not cutting edge researchers and you can’t compete), but the percentage of grants funded at NIH looks to hit historic lows, and NSF is taking measures to reduce the number of full applications they are reviewing.
The trend is for less taxpayer supported research, not more, for the foreseeable future. And as the number of people who are not funded by taxpayers goes up, they are much more likely to be looking for publication venues where they will not be paying publication fees out of pocket. I’ve already seen one person arguing that any journal that has a publication fee is not open access (here, down in the comments).
There is a better argument for open access that has not been made nearly enough: the importance of sharing.
I support open access because sharing is part of my ethos as a scientist. I want people to read my stuff. There’s a reason all my blogs have Creative Commons licenses. Because ideas that spread, win, as Seth Godin says.
People get that sharing is good. People understand and respect the generous impulses behind sharing. Sharing is one of the most simple and basic lessons we teach kids to help them get along with other people. Sharing time and effort is how you get Wikipedia and YouTube and social media.
People understand that science is a public endeavor. Results need to be available to people who want to check them.
Appealing to people’s willingness to share could be a much more powerful argument for open access than appealing to their sense of outrage over payments that many of them will never make. Complaining about value for tax dollars feels kind of small in comparison to, “We just want everyone to be able to read the stuff we do. Because it’s awesome.”
Scientists want to share what they have to share. That’s why we should promote open access and why the Research Works Act not try to stop it.