Adventures in Ethics and Science

Even though I’ve been frightfully busy this week, I’ve been following the news about the launch of PRISM (Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine). I first saw it discussed in this post by Peter Suber, after which numerous ScienceBloggers piled on. If you have some time (and a cup of coffee), read Bora’s comprehensive run-down of the blogosphere’s reaction.

If you’re in a hurry, here are three reasons I think PRISM’s plans to “save” scientists and the public from Open Access are a bad idea.

  1. While the PRISM website claims that a consequence of more Open Access publishing is the “undermining the peer review process by compromising the viability of non-profit and commercial journals that manage and fund it”, we’ve noted before that peer reviewing is nearly always labor scientists undertake for free — for no actual pay, and with very little tangible career reward for it. If they’re doing it for free, the “funding” of peer review by the journals has to be minimal. And, if they’re doing it for free, scientists must think peer review of scientific findings is important — so much so that they’d probably keep doing it even if the old school journals closed up shop.
  2. The public is paying (through federal funding from NIH or NSF, for example) for the lion’s share of the research whose outcomes are reported in journals, many of which the public can’t reliably access. When PRISM complains about “expropriation of publishers’ investments in copyrighted articles,” the taxpayers’ investment in the research is conveniently ignored. As Peter Suber explains:

    Recent legislative and regulatory efforts have encouraged free online access to peer-reviewed manuscripts within 12 months of publication. A few efforts, which have not yet passed, would require this kind of free online access. But every one of these efforts (1) has applied to the final version of the author’s peer-reviewed manuscript, not to the published edition, and (2) has been scrupulous to avoid amending copyright law or interfering with the transfer of copyright. Under these policies, researchers may still hold copyrights to their writings, may still transfer their copyrights to publishers, and publishers may still hold and exercise those copyrights. … These policies don’t require publishers to surrender their articles or their copyrights. If authors transfer copyright to publishers, which is still the custom, then publishers remain the exclusive rights holders for the life of copyright. The policies only require that the version on which they may hold copyright coexist with a free online copy of an earlier version, starting 6-12 months after publication.

    If journals are trying to exercise tighter control over the scientific findings they publish — asserting that they can only appear in the journal — and if commercial interests keep these journals out of the hands of the public, that’s fine. But in that case, the funding agencies doling out the research funds might well decide to attach clauses requiring the results of the research supported by these funds to be published in Open Access journals. (“How will people get tenure if they’re not publishing in the Good Journals?!” Given how heavily research universities depend on federal funds, I’d imagine that the terrain for retention, tenure, and promotion from the point of view of which publications “count” could change rather quickly.)

  3. In general, restrictions on the flow of information seem more likely to lead to conditions “introducing duplication and inefficiencies that will divert resources that would otherwise be dedicated to research” than does Open Access publishing of scientific findings.

Also, I’d be thrilled if this lobbying group would choose some word other than “Integrity” to fill in the “I” in their acronym. At least in the context of scientific practice, it’s not clear that they understand what integrity means.


  1. #1 Andythebrit
    August 29, 2007

    What exactly is their “investment?”
    They don’t fund the research.
    They don’t pay the scientists.
    They don’t fund the university infrastructure.
    They don’t pay the peer reviewers who appraise the work.
    In many cases, authors are now expected to provide figures, tables etc already prepared for publication, along with a manuscript uploaded in digital format.
    It’s not a big exaggeration to say that all the publishers do is copyedit and do some minimal layout before pasting it to their journal.
    They then charge researchers and libraries rather large sums of money to receive the journals and accompanying websites.

  2. #2 Michael Clarkson
    August 29, 2007

    Don’t the page charges authors pay to journals typically come from grants as well? That is, doesn’t taxpayer money *directly* support these journals?

  3. #3 Lab Lemming
    August 30, 2007

    Taxpayers already directly support journals in the form of institutional subscriptions by public universities and research institutes.

  4. #4 David Hunter
    August 31, 2007

    I agree entirely, this seems a fairly transparent attempt of the powers that be in publishing to coopt supposed moral concerns to try and push a potential economic threat out of the market.

  5. #5 Christina K. Pikas
    August 31, 2007

    To be fair, the investment is in developing the discovery tools, databases, and document management systems. There are ongoing discussions of how much it really costs per paper to publish with overhead, editorial, and advertising. Some say that the $1500 paper charge of some OA journals is inadequate — that it costs more like 3-5k per paper. In any case I agree that this PRISM thing is pretty horrid and their arguments are invalid.

  6. #6 Ecpyrosis
    September 2, 2007

    I’m reminded of something Steven Pinker said at a talk I attended.(you can find him repeating the quote in his “The Future of Digital Commons” speech at though that wasn’t where I heard him).

    When he told his father that he was being published in a prominent journal for the first time, his father congratulated him and asked how much he would get paid. “Well, nothing.” so is the journal cheap? The father wanted to buy a copy. “Actually it’s quite expensive.” Well, is that because they’re paying the reviewers then? “Well, no” The editors? “No, not really…”

    The system is fundamentally broken. Free content provided by those in academia, a fixed market in the form of universities, libraries, etc. and nearly free editorial aid. Even the cost of actually printing and distributing the things, the only semi-legitimate claim the publishers used to be able to make, is going down as more and more journals are letting you subscribe online. It’s almost straight profit for publishers whose only contribution is respectability, which, as you said, would be transferred to open-access online journals if enough people started putting enough solid papers up.