The Questionable Authority

Open Access and Costs

An interesting comment about open access has been left over at Bora’s place. The commenter is clearly not in favor of open access, and provides a number of reasons for her opposition. I’m going to break the comment into a couple of parts, and address all of the objections separately.

OPEN ACCESS isn’t FREE. That’s what any first year econ student will tell you. I don’t know why scientists can’t get that. Open access is free to the reader. It still costs money to publish. Open access shifts that cost to the author.

That means the author has to:

a) pull money out of his grant to pay publication charges (assuming the grant terms allow that)

b) get the university/department to pay (like the university is going to want to do that or can do that)

c) pay out of his own pocket

d) failing some or all of the above, publish LESS. LESS SCIENCE, not more.

The money has to come from someone and somewhere. Open access is NOT FREE.

There are a couple of things worth noting here. The first is that the repeated “OPEN ACCESS isn’t FREE” slogan reads exactly like something that you would expect to find in an Eric Dezenhall-type go-for-the-throat defensive PR campaign. This wouldn’t be terribly remarkable, if it weren’t for the fact that the for-profit publishers have hired Eric Dezenhall to help them put together a go-for-the-throat defensive PR campaign. It’s entirely possible – even probable – that this particular comment isn’t connected to the paid-for campaign, but the similarity is still striking.

The second thing worth noting is that absolutely nobody is claiming that open access is actually free. Publishing certainly costs money. So does distribution, and marketing, and any number of other things connected with the publishing process. The only things that are free are the articles themselves, and the time of all of the reviewers and most of the editors. We do know, however, based on the annual reports of some of the publishers that the costs of the publishing process seem to be far, far less than the income that the publications bring in.

The third thing worth noting is that not everyone is calling for immediate access to all articles. There are a number of competing proposals out there, and most of the ones I’ve seen call for access to articles after a certain period of time (most seem to specify six months to one year). The proposals also don’t call for making such access mandatory for all articles. Instead, they call for access to all articles reporting the results of government-funded research. The guiding principal that is being invoked to support these proposals is not so much, “information should be free” as it is, “we should get to see what we paid for.”

It’s also worth mentioning that a number of journals, including some run by the for-profit publishers, already require payments from authors.

Moving right along:

Now, about your charge that those who have money to lose will fight against freedom of information. Mandatory open access is going to hurt those who do NOT have money to lose…the small nonprofits. They rely nearly entirely on memberships (individual subscriptions) and library subscriptions for their operating revenue, most of which goes to publish the journal. Kill these societies, you kill their journals. LESS SCIENCE, not more.

This is an argument against immediate open access, but it is not an argument against open access within a set period of time after publication. It’s also worth noting that a lot of society journals are published by the for-profit companies.

Finally – the information is already free. What it isn’t is readily accessible to everyone in the world, 24/7. Publishers are already establishing policies to increase ready access, including free or very-low-cost subscriptions in the developing world, providing free articles to physicians upon request, providing free online access after a delay (of six months to a couple of years, depending on the journal).

Open access in the developing world is a good thing, and I’m all for that. I’m also in favor of free access following a delay of six months to a year rather than immediately. Yet, if you look at the last attempt at a bill mandating open access, the access would have been required after six months, and the bill was still opposed by the publishing industry. Why? Because most journals don’t allow open access after a period of time – particularly in the case of the journals published by the for-profits. Blackwell publishing lists all of 44 titles with open access, and the majority of those have a delay of at least two years.

The problem is that mandatory, immediate open access will just shift costs, could reduce the number of scientific publications, and will benefit only a very few members of the public who can actually understand technical publications.

Man. You guys are proving Darwin wrong!

Actually, free public access will benefit students, and researchers who are not fortunate enough to be affiliated with an institution that provides access to all the journals they need. It will also benefit those “few” of the general public who “can actually understand technical publications.” (An insulting turn of phrase if I’ve ever seen one.) Even more than that, though, it will benefit the members of the general public who haven’t been exposed to the technical literature, but who are interested in learning more. It’s hard to see who – aside from the publishers – loses if research papers are made available after a reasonable amount of time.

Comments

  1. #1 Sandra Porter
    January 30, 2007

    It should be noted that one of the groups involved in the issue is the American Chemical Society. They are a non-profit organization.

  2. #2 df
    January 30, 2007

    Wow, that sounds remarkably like the “Free software isn’t free.” meme that Steve DelBianco was peddling a few years ago. It shouldn’t be surprising that many of the same tactics used to fight open source software will also be used to fight open access publishing.

  3. #3 Doug Alder
    January 30, 2007

    I just stumbled upon your site and I’m not 100% certain what this Open Access fight is all about but perhaps this new product Ink2 (see http://ipadventures.com/?p=1588) would help? It lowers the cost of publishing as it is on demand publishing that gives the author the ability to recoup costs instantly on a per unit basis.

    If not just delete this passing comment :-)

  4. #4 bigTom
    January 30, 2007

    I’m convinced that Open Access will be a MAJOR public good. Working out a buisiness model, so that the neccesary work of publishing, editing, and peer review can be supported is an issue, but given the large gains for advancement of world science that will result, we ought to be able to find a way to make the relatively small resources needed available. Clearly Open Source software has been a major benefit, greatly reducing the cost of entry into a lot of fields, and I don’t see why Open Access scientific publishing will be any different.
    Given that science and engineering are becoming increasingly interdisiplinary, the cost of access to all the various specialized publications is becoming a significant issue which Open Access will clearly fix.

  5. #5 RPM
    January 31, 2007

    Open access shifts that cost to the author.

    What about author costs for non-open-access journals?

  6. #6 Mark
    January 31, 2007

    You hit one of the major points, which is that the results of research paid for by government grants should and does belong to the public. They should have access to that information without having to pay for it again. Of course that argument is less powerful when you consider that the US government itself already charges the public for information that they have paid for in many cases. For example, if I want to do some research into climate in my home town, I have to pay for NWS records. That is not true of all locations, but it is true for my home town.

    On the other hand, there are some government agencies that do an admirable job of making public information accessible to the publlic. For example, NOAA’s Comprehensive Large Array-data Stewardship System (CLASS) is an electronic library of NOAA environmental data that can be freely accessed, ordered and delivered online. CLASS is a model for public access to government data.

  7. #7 tbell
    January 31, 2007

    it would be nice to hear a response from the author of the comments, and best of all would be a response that actually addresses all of the points raised above with evidence. I suspect, however, that the commenter will disappear never to be heard from again.

  8. #8 Gerard Harbison
    January 31, 2007

    It should be noted that one of the groups involved in the issue is the American Chemical Society. They are a non-profit organization.

    I have been, by professional necessity, a member of ACS. They make Enron look like Oxfam. They’re a power-hungry oligarchy that has acted ruthlessly over the last 20 years to corner as much as they can of the scientific information market.

    But then, it’s worth remembering the ACS’s first great successful lobbying effort was against the Geneva protocol banning chemical weapons, on the grounds that chemical weapons were more modern and progressive than bullets.