The Questionable Authority

It’s always a good day when I can blog about profit hungry companies trying to protect their profit margins or about some group using sleazy tactics to try to get special interest legislation passed or blocked. Today is a very good day – I get to do both at the same time. That’s right, folks, the Association of American Publishers is so worried about the damage that whole evil open access thing might cause to their profit the integrity of research that they’ve set up their very own astroturf -oops, I meant grassroots- group to protect us from this growing problem. Someone, somewhere is clearly doing something right.

The new astroturf group, the Orwellianly named Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine (PRISM), has been set up specifically to fight against something that quite a few people and groups have been lobbying for: a requirement that any research paper that reports federally funded research be made available to the public, for free. Some proposals would require free access immediately upon publication, while others would require free access after a certain period of time had passed. According to PRISM, this would be a really bad thing that would threaten the entire scientific system in any number of ways. The real threat, of course, is not to the scientific system, which did fine before the for-profit academic publishers came along, but to the profit margins of the publishers.

If you look closely at the publishing industry’s complaints, I think you’ll find something interesting. The complaints are really an admission that the billion dollar profits of the academic publishing industry are nothing more than a hidden government subsidy. Your tax dollars are used to conduct the research that is reported in these papers. Your tax dollars are used, in many cases, to pay for portions of the publication process. Your tax dollars are then used to allow other researchers (often funded by your tax dollars) to buy access to that research. The publishing industry is fighting tooth and nail right now to make sure that they get to continue to extract as many government dollars as possible.

Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not:

The open access legislation that the publishing industry’s pet astroturf group is fighting against only involves research that’s funded by the government. In the United States, that represents a large fraction of the research that’s published, because the federal government funds a hell of a lot of basic research. These tax dollars are spent in three broad ways: on the personnel costs; on the logistical costs of the research; and on institutional overhead (we’ll come back to that one later).

The logistical costs include all of the things that people usually think of when they hear “research.” The test tubes, the beakers, the colored liquids that go in the labware, the lessons in maniacal laughter – all of that stuff falls into the “logistical” costs category. Unless those costs are paid, the research doesn’t happen. If the research doesn’t happen, there’s nothing to write about. The personnel costs of the research include the salaries for the people who do the work. Scientists do need to eat something and sleep somewhere, so those costs are also sort of important to actually getting enough done to write about.

It’s worth noting at this point that the authors of papers and the referees who evaluate papers are not paid. The editors of some academic journals are paid, and some receive a stipend to cover the portion of their time that’s spent on editorial duties, but many journal editors receive no compensation at all. Writing papers, reviewing them, editing journals – that’s the price that scientists pay for being part of the scientific community. The for-profit academic publishers are, in many cases, the ones privileged to collect that price. The federal government, by employing some scientists and funding part of the salary of others, winds up paying for a lot of the peer-review process.

And then there’s overhead. A certain fraction of a grant usually goes to the institution that employs the researchers. This money goes to pay for a lot of the little things that are needed to conduct research. It covers the salaries of clerical staff. It covers the salaries of the janitorial and maintenance folks and pays for their supplies. It keeps the lights on in the lab, and the building heated or cooled as necessary. It helps pay for the library.

Libraries really are needed for scientific research. The whole reason that papers are published is to make other researchers aware of the new discoveries. The library allows us to find out what’s been done before. It lets us figure out what works. It helps us develop new ideas for new directions of research. It’s at least as necessary to good scientific research as the lab itself. And it’s the real source of the profits for the academic publishers. If Acta Oecologica is in your library, they pay a bit over $500 a year for that subscription. The Journal of Molecular Biology sets them back about $6,900. If your library wants Sustainable Development, they’ll need to be able to sustain a grand a year. Who uses those libraries? Researchers, among others, many of whom are working on research that’s funded by federal grants.

The for-profit publishers of academic journals are given the papers that they publish. The scientists who review the papers donate their time, as do many of the editors. The publishers take care of the logistics of publication, then sell the same papers (bundled with others in a convenient format) back to the same researchers, in the process reaping enormous profits. Your tax dollars fund at least some of every step in this process, but these publishers don’t want you to be able to read the articles – even months after publication – without adding to their profits.

What nice people.

Comments

  1. #1 Mary
    August 28, 2007

    Yeahbut, under most of the open access proposals, the government still ends up paying for all the journals’ costs. Instead of the libraries paying for subscriptions, the authors are supposed to actually pay to publish! They’re gonna do that with government money.

    I like the open access idea because it means that people who aren’t at universities (which will include me, soon) will be able to read ‘em. But it raises the barrier to participation, makes it even more important to be Continuously Funded or perish, which sucks. Plus, there’s just something fishy about the pay-to-publish model to me. In the real world, people who have to pay to have their books published are usually cranks, or just bad writers.

  2. #2 Kai von Fintel
    August 28, 2007

    Actually, most open-access journals do not charge an author fee (I believe Peter Suber has stressed this again and again). Some of the high profile ones do, but many others do not. They are funded by universities, libraries, professional organizations. It turns out that with some forethought, a high quality journal can be run very efficiently these days, mitigating the need for author charges.

  3. #3 leah
    August 29, 2007

    It’s unethical to claim to be a Grass-roots organization when you’re in the company’s pocket. It’s also unethical to infringe all of your homepage images from Getty Images and leave the watermark to prove it:
    http://www.itgumbo.com/mumbogumbo/2007/08/hypocrisy_scandals_shock_inter.php
    I suppose PRISM can no longer claim the moral highground now.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.