While going back through blog archives and reviewing incoming links, I stumbled on this post from about a year ago from Zen Faulkes at Neuro Dojo:

There are many reasons to argue for open access of scientific research. But this is not the best one:

It’s your taxes that fund the research, you should have access to the results without me or anyone else being a mediator.

That one is from Kevin at We, Beasties. When I protested that this argument omits indie science, Kevin replied that it’s such a small amount as to be not even worth considering.

I object to this characterization of my argument (I did not say it wasn’t worth considering, I pointed out that as government funding accounts for greater than 90% of all funding, they have by far the largest stick to beat publishers with), but that quibble is a bit beside the point. There’s an important question here that I think deserves consideration, especially as #OAS gains more traction in public policy debates and in the public consciousness* (which is why I’m dragging up a year-old blog post). What’s the best way to convince people that it’s the right thing to do?

Zen’s original comment objecting to the “taxes” argument does make some fair points – not all science is government funded and our government isn’t the only one funding it. Instead, he writes that:

Scientific results are a common good that create the greatest benefit when they are shared.

and

Scientific research operates best when you have sharing and transparency. That, I think, is the best argument for open access policies regardless of who pays for it.

I totally agree that this is a great argument, and I’ve made it too

Science benefits when the flow of information is unrestricted and everyone benefits when scientific knowledge advances.

But is this argument better than the taxes argument? There are serious problems with the “public good” argument and the “efficiency” argument as well. If your approach is to convince the government to change its policy, arguing that something is a public good and should therefore be brought into the public sphere is likely to poison your position with half the members of congress. I’m so progressive I’m almost a socialist, so the argument works well for me, but publishing is a business and having the government step in and essentially destroy (or at least radically overhaul) a sector of private industry with new regulation would never fly. And that same group of congress people essentially views “government” and “efficiency” as antonyms.

Is it a better argument to convince other scientists? I applaud the goal of trying to get more scientists to publish there stuff in open access journals, but I just don’t think that this sort of ground-up effort can work on its own. There are too many institutional barriers to scientists that want to buck the trend – grant money, career advancement and prestige are all tied to publication record, and the most prestigious journals are not open access. Several of my grad school buddies have said that I’m crazy, the system we have is just fine and anyway even if it’s not, there’s no way to change it. For them, the taxes argument is probably a loser, but maybe efficiency and public good will only work for some of them.

I don’t know what the answer is. Ultimately, I think that moving towards open access and even entirely different models for disseminating scientific information is one of the most important causes in modern science, and I think we should pursue every angle to convince people of its merit.

* I even heard Leo Laporte bring up academic publishing on the most recent episode of This Week in Google (around minute 54). It was just in passing, but this tells me that the issue is filtering into public consciousness. It would be interesting to know what argument(s) resonate with him.

Comments

  1. #1 Lidyana
    UK
    August 13, 2012

    Wonderful science, thanks.

  2. #2 Pat Cotey
    greater philadelphia metro area
    August 14, 2012

    I agree that a ground up effort alone for open science access is not going to work. Publishing in journals has worked for so long that it is going to take some very compelling reasons to have academia change their methods. If we look back at why journals were started–to share information–we might see the most compelling reason for change. We need to continue sharing research and data and the tools to do that have changed. With the internet, the best way to share science is on-line. The costs are less, the “institutions barriers” are minimized and the access is stellar.

    It is the access to findings and insights of other researchers that will propel us forward in scientific discoveries. I agree that all arguments need to be aired and one is not the best to get everyone to support open access. Each argument has merit and each will appeal to different sectors of researchers and scientists. The benefits of sharing science cannot be argued.

    • #3 Kevin Bonham
      August 14, 2012

      Exactly – journals are obsolete. They no longer add value and instead leach money away from the system while at the same time erecting barriers to access.

  3. #4 EatatJoes
    August 14, 2012

    You may be *this* close to being a socialist, but this Libertarian really likes the way you think! Try different things! Something is bound to stick and change things for the better. The more ideas, the better! Inject some outside of the box thinking into the community, it may spark something marvelous.

    • #5 Kevin Bonham
      August 14, 2012

      I once saw a bit of political commentary that said that the political spectrum is less like a line and more like a horseshoe, where the far extremes on both sides are actually closer together than center-right is to center-left. Maybe this is an example of that? In any case, I’m happy to build a coalition with anyone that thinks we can do better than the current system.

  4. #6 Rhiggs
    Ireland
    August 17, 2012

    “Exactly – journals are obsolete. They no longer add value…”

    Having worked in scientific publishing, and still occasionally doing freelance work, I think your blanket dismissal of the role of journals is quite naive. A system that has worked well for 150+ years can’t suddenly become obsolete. The emergence of open-access publishing is definitely a good thing, and prestigious journals are actually very interested in going down that road (see Nature Communications).

    Critics always want to see change happen immediately, but in reality a whole industry cannot be expected to shift in a matter of years when they still have a successful business model in place. Imagine if research results were released on blogs such as this for free – do you think that would be a good thing? How cold that possibly be standardized and regulated? The scope for fraudulent data would be so big that no-one would trust anyone else.

    The likely solution is a mix of subscription and open-access options, and journals that don’t adapt will (eventually) suffer. But even open access journals will need a viable business model behind them to survive, so I’m afraid they will inevitably become entrenched by capitalism regardless of the socialistic reasoning you put forward in their support.

    By the way, full-time editorial staff do far more work than you might think so that you get to read a legible logical piece of research from a non-English speaking researchers.

    Finally, I’m also an immunologist by trade (PhD) and enjoy your immunology posts.

    • #7 Kevin Bonham
      August 17, 2012

      I’m sympathetic to this argument, though I disagree. My statement “they don’t add value” is perhaps a bit extreme (I’ve been called on this by other commenters in previous posts), but the truth is that I don’t think they add value that’s anywhere near commensurate with the costs to research. Personally, I don’t even think open access journals go far enough, though they are certainly better.

      A system that has worked well for 150+ years can’t suddenly become obsolete.

      I don’t think it’s sudden at all. The internet has been around for quite a while, and just as newspapers, book publishing, the music industry etc are being radically altered, so too must science catch up to modern technology. I would have hoped that science would be on the cutting edge rather than being the slowest to reform. And it’s also worth noting that the current models are not really 150 years old. Yes, the first academic journals started around then, but to take one example, peer-review (the way we do it now) has only been standard for 50 years or so. Watson and Crick’s double helix paper wasn’t peer reviewed, and that turned out fine.

      magine if research results were released on blogs such as this for free – do you think that would be a good thing? How cold that possibly be standardized and regulated? The scope for fraudulent data would be so big that no-one would trust anyone else.

      Yes, I do think this would be a good thing. It could be standardized and regulated using things like alt metrics, new platforms for open (or at least transparent) peer review and the like. There’s not really a framework for this yet because no one has bothered to build one.

      But the idea that radically open science would be more prone to corruption strikes me as farcical. What do journals do to prevent fraudulent data? Maybe they can run some fancy algorithms over images or something, but it would be trivially easy to manufacture huge swaths of data that would pass muster with peer review. And the closed nature of publishing makes findings that are incorrect (because of fraud or just because science is science) much harder to overturn. Journals rarely publish negative results, or replication studies, and papers are rarely retracted unless there’s blatant wrong-doing.

      Sure, people could publish as much BS as they wanted on their blogs, but there are so many journals these days that just about anything can be published anyway. The incentives to not do this would be just as strong, if not stronger, because labs prone to publishing false or misleading data would be rapidly identified and shunned. I think there’s even a role for journal-like entities to exist in this sort of ecosystem – curating the best labs and the best stories and charging a small fee for subscription to reviews or lists that they generate. But the cost would be lower, and the incentive to continue to add value would be stronger because they would fail if they did not.

      Ultimately, I have faith that the scientific community would have no trouble separating the wheat from the chaff.

      I’m afraid they will inevitably become entrenched by capitalism regardless of the socialistic reasoning you put forward in their support.

      I actually don’t think so. The trouble is, the current model is shielded from market forces because of institutional entrenchment. As long as researchers need journal publications for promotion and grants, they will not seek alternative methods of publishing. This is why I think we need some top-down pressure to start eroding the institutional barriers so that other ideas can flourish.

      By the way, full-time editorial staff do far more work than you might think so that you get to read a legible logical piece of research from a non-English speaking researchers.

      I’m sure this is true, and in my vision, I see a lot of specialist services springing up to do things like this. Probably with significantly reduced cost.

      Finally, I’m also an immunologist by trade (PhD) and enjoy your immunology posts.

      Thanks! Be sure to let me know if I screw anything up :-)

  5. #8 Rhiggs
    Ireland
    August 18, 2012

    I’ve worked in the industry and it does grate me when I hear academics complaining about science publishing when they don’t actually realize the amount of work that goes on in publishing houses. Correct me if I am wrong, but your argument isn’t really with science publishing at all. It is with scientists themselves.

    If the top journals continue to charge subscriptions, and the scientists continue to subscribe in numbers large enough to sustain their business model, then they have no incentive to change. Nor should they – business is business, and should not pander to ideologies. And I honestly think that is what your vision is – an ideology – not a viable alternative to what exists.

    “There’s not really a framework for this yet because no one has bothered to build one.”

    And why has no-one bothered? Why don’t you and some like-minded people ‘bother’ to change the system if it is so bad? You think it’s attributable to institutionalized entrenchment. There is certainly some truth to that, although I would agree with your grad-school buddies and just call it a system that works fine for most. But a much larger factor for me is that your vision would be close to logistically impossible to achieve. I mean, where would you start? If everyone collectively decided to boycott all journals in the morning and started publishing on blogs, it would result in ‘science by Wikapedia’, where the community is just expected to police itself. Individuals would not be able to personally process the information from the multitude of research blogs that would spring up overnight. You propose journal-like entities that would charge small subscription fees to create lists of the best blogs/labs. I wonder where you think that would end up leading the industry…?

    Before long, the lists provided by these journal-like entities would be in high demand due to the vast amount of research being published (the amount that is published on PubMed every day is staggering so imagine how much would be published per day if you could literally just post to a blog page). Busy scientists would begin to simply ignore most of the blogs and just subscribe to the lists, which would filter through the chaff and highlight the best work out there. The journal-like entities would need to hire more staff to meet the rising demand. All of this costs money and, inevitably, subscription fees would rise. Sound familiar?

    Rather than risk being missed out, labs would start sending copies of their blog articles to these journal-like entities and ask them to consider highlighting their work over others. Business-minded people will quickly see the potential in this model and start charging labs for the privilege of getting their work highlighted in the lists. They would also recruit top researchers to peer-review these submissions to ensure their quality – the upshot for the reviewer being that their association with this journal-like entity bolsters their own career.

    In short, basic business principles would bring us back to where we started.

    The point is this….

    The great thing about business (and capitalism) is that if a product or service is in demand, it thrives, and if it isn’t, it disappears. Business-minded people will sense where profit can be made and make as much profit as they can. The market dictates whether they succeed or not. The current market dictates that science journals are in high demand, so until the critics of this system actually provide a viable alternative (rather than ‘visions’ based on ideologies), this demand will remain and journals will have no incentive to change. Even if a viable alternative is found, business will find a foothold in the new system and before long things will start looking eerily familiar.

    For me, a shift from subscriptions to open-access is the best-case scenario. It will happen, but only to a certain point. If all journals went fully open access thus eliminating subscription fees, revenue would need to made elsewhere and the submission costs would go through the roof (how else would the industry survive?), thus discouraging authors from going open-access to begin with.

    An equilibrium will be found and is actively being sought by publishers. Alternative visions, while admirable, are unlikely to result in more than interesting debate until such a time when critics of the current system ‘bother’ to provide an alternative. They are the people who you should be directing this argument towards. You should not be throwing in the red herring that science journals add no value and are obsolete. If you had a viable alternative that is actively working, then you might be right. But as you admit yourself there is not even a framework for such an alternative, so at this stage it is simply wrong to imply that journals are the bad guys here and do nothing for science. It is like the inventor of a theoretical teleportation device driving to a conference to tell people that cars are obsolete and add no value, them driving home again.

    • #9 Kevin Bonham
      August 18, 2012

      “There’s not really a framework for this yet because no one has bothered to build one.”

      And why has no-one bothered? Why don’t you and some like-minded people ‘bother’ to change the system if it is so bad?

      Imagine a world where your budget for buying books was directly linked to how often you purchased books from a brick-and-mortar store. Now I come along and propose that selling books online would make it easier and cheaper to buy books. “That’s nonsense,” everyone says, “how could you possibly distribute the books, how would people know what they like if they can’t leaf through the pages, why would people be willing to spend money online?”

      There were a lot of unknowns when Amazon.com got started, but they’ve become enormously successful despite many potential obstacles, and their success has even paved the way for whole new technologies and industries (like ebooks). But could Amazon have ever become successful in the world I described? No matter how much more convenient, no matter how much cheaper, no matter how much better for consumers, as long as your income is tied to a particular system, no other models could possibly compete.

      The argument “why not try it and see what happens” argument is absurd. Of course it will fail. Why would scientists publish anything online outside the framework of journals when they will get no credit for the work in the current system? Even I, as passionate as I am about the need for change, could not possibly put my research online for all to see. If someone took my knowledge and published it in a journal, I’d lose all credit, it would be harder for my lab to get funding and everyone in it would suffer.

      But I have data that it would be useful for my field to know. It could have impact on a lot of the experiments that people are currently doing. It’s not quite ready to form a complete story, and we’re waiting to publish to see if we can get it into a higher impact journal. But even if it were ready tomorrow, it would likely take at least a year to get it through review and publication – in the meantime, there are people who are doing the wrong experiments and wasting time and money, or the same experiments waisting time and money.

      In short, basic business principles would bring us back to where we started.

      It’s possible that events would play out as you describe (I don’t think so, but who can say for sure?). Do you honestly think that we’d still have journals operating with 30% profit margins? Do you think subscription fees would be bankrupting the library budgets of even enormously wealthy institutions like Harvard? Do you think that there are no innovations in distribution or review or editing or meta-analysis or anything that aren’t being held back by the monopolies that publishers have?

      The current market dictates that science journals are in high demand, so until the critics of this system actually provide a viable alternative

      My point is that the focus of the market is distorted. No one denies that journals are in high demand in the current system. We’re seeing a huge proliferation of new journals, and scientists will publish in them, because we get money from the state that’s based on how much we publish in journals, so we funnel that money into publishing in journals. My point is that what drives the market is publishing, rather than what should actually drive the market: science. There is no market for scientific ideas and data that is separate from publishing, so other models don’t stand a chance.

      But as you admit yourself there is not even a framework for such an alternative, so at this stage it is simply wrong to imply that journals are the bad guys here and do nothing for science. It is like the inventor of a theoretical teleportation device driving to a conference to tell people that cars are obsolete and add no value, them driving home again.

      Cars are useful in a world without teleporters, just as horse carriages were useful in a world without cars and academic journals were useful in world without the internet. I feel like we’re in a world where teleporters have been invented, but no one accepts that they would be a better alternative to travel, because people only get paid to travel by car. Again, I accept that journals add some value – my statement that they proved absolutely no value is a bit extreme. Horse carriages still provide value too – it can be pleasant to be pulled around in a park by one. But I’d be bitter if people told me that I had to spend $30,000 on a carriage to get to work, when I know that cars can be cheaper and better.

  6. #10 Rhiggs
    Ireland
    August 18, 2012

    “Even I, as passionate as I am about the need for change, could not possibly put my research online for all to see. If someone took my knowledge and published it in a journal, I’d lose all credit, it would be harder for my lab to get funding and everyone in it would suffer.”

    I’m afraid it sounds very much like you are willing to talk the talk, but aren’t prepared to walk the walk. Who exactly is going to be the first to ‘try it and see what happens’? Are you expecting someone else to test the waters for you? Most researchers I’ve ever met are happy with the system. It is those like you who ‘passionately’ want to change it that need to lead the way, rather than expecting others to go first, or a viable business model to reform its ways just because you think it should.

    “I feel like we’re in a world where teleporters have been invented…”

    Really? I don’t see where you have outlined any viable teleporter-like alternative to the current scientific journal system, other than to vaguely speculate on what ‘might be’ according to your vision – a vision that you have admitted there is no framework for, and that you aren’t currently willing to pursue.

    “But I’d be bitter if people told me that I had to spend $30,000 on a carriage to get to work, when I know that cars can be cheaper and better.”

    Are you saying that you personally spend $30,000 in order to access research in scientific journals? Please explain your analogy.

  7. #11 Rhiggs
    Ireland
    August 19, 2012

    Sorry Kevin, I didn’t mean to criticize your personal choices of how you publish your research. You’re a PhD student so I doubt you even have much of a say where the work will be published. I’ve been there too. No doubt your PI wants you to publish in a high-ranked journal.

    As you say, publishing the results on a blog will leave you open to others stealing your work. But strangely you seem to think that if everyone published on blogs that this could not happen…? Your own actions indicate that there is not actually any viable alternative out there, although reading your blog posts one gets the impression that there is an alternative ready to go and that we should all engage in it immediately.

    I notice that in a previous post of yours you mention that Harvard was thinking of boycotting some major publishing companies.

    First, what is the latest on this?

    Second, I wonder if the memo released by Harvard was similarly constructed to that released by the University of California Digital Library in 2010 in relation to boycotting Nature Publishing Group: http://libraries.ucsd.edu/collections/Nature_Faculty_Letter-June_2010.pdf

    What the CDL memo failed to explain was that they were already on a massively reduced subscription fee, and they were simply unhappy that NPG was reducing the discount (from 55% to 50% according to NPG). Discounted subscription fees for large libraries like CDL (and presumably Harvard) are always negotiated between the libraries and the publishing companies – they are not just charged standard fees. CDL had been operating for years on a massively reduced subscription fee for many years. I would be surprised if Harvard are not also offered discounted fees. What happens is that the libraries assume that this discount will continue indefinitely and budget accordingly, but when publishers attempt to reduce the discount, the libraries run into problems and send threatening letters and memos.

    See the full NPG response to CDL here: http://www.nature.com/press_releases/cdl.html

    Eventually a mutually-beneficial agreement was reached between CDL and NPG . The point being that when libraries kick up a fuss, it is simply a public maneuvering tool prior to entering negotiations with publishers – that’s business. It is not a sign that they are about to turn their back on the current publishing industry and move to a completely new model.

    • #12 Kevin Bonham
      August 19, 2012

      As you say, publishing the results on a blog will leave you open to others stealing your work. But strangely you seem to think that if everyone published on blogs that this could not happen…?

      That’s correct. If the standard was open publishing, then credit would be established by publishing openly. The trouble with publishing openly now is that credit is only given to journal-published stories.

      Your own actions indicate that there is not actually any viable alternative out there, although reading your blog posts one gets the impression that there is an alternative ready to go and that we should all engage in it immediately.

      Sorry, this is not the impression I wish to give. I’m trying to advance the argument that we need to find mechanisms that give credit to data and ideas, in whatever form they are presented, rather than only giving credit to journal-published research. If journals end up being the best solution after all, then I would walk away happy. The trouble is that the journal-publishing model is artificially supported by funding practices – I’m trying to suggest that this needs to be changed.

      I notice that in a previous post of yours you mention that Harvard was thinking of boycotting some major publishing companies.

      Harvard Libraries were not threatening to boycott any publishing companies, they were encouraging researchers to voluntarily choose to publish in open-access journals. Their argument is that closed journals have prestige, so people continue publishing in them, but that researchers should try to shift prestige to open-access options. Whether this is a principaled stance or a business move, I can’t say.

      But consider how insulated from costs researchers are. For the most part, labs to do not pay the costs of publishing directly from their grants. Instead, institutional overhead is pulled out, some of which goes to library budgets, which then pay for me to read all of the literature I have access to. Ultimately, the money comes from the same place, but the people making the decisions about where to publish, what journals to review for etc, aren’t bearing the cost of those decisions.

      You’re right that institutions (including Harvard) are given discounts from the list price, but those discounts are often dependent on bundling less desirable journals, keeping them artificially afloat. And the list-prices of journals are rising faster than inflation despite the fact that many of these publishing companies have enormous profit margins.

      Sorry Kevin, I didn’t mean to criticize your personal choices of how you publish your research.

      No need to apologize. I’ve been having this discussion a lot lately – I’m happy to take some lumps if I can at least raise awareness of the issue (even if I ultimately don’t convince you).

  8. #13 Open Access
    USA
    September 12, 2012

    I used to support the open access because it is free of cost & every author can publish their own journals without money.

  9. [...] are many different and valid arguments for Open Access; in my opinion, the arguments work best when combined. Open Access provides many benefits so I am overjoyed that the United Kingdom has mandated that [...]

  10. [...] my attention.  In the future, I will try to put out this list of things a little more frequently. The Best Argument in Favor of Open Access Science is All Of Them @Kevbonham  I shouldn’t have to explain why this matters.  More information here: Open [...]

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