Open Access

Over the last couple of days, quite a number of articles have been posted here at Scienceblogs commenting on the for-profit academic publishing community's most recent efforts to fight mandatory open access to government science. The industry group representing the major publishers of academic journals in the US hired a well-known DC public relations attack dog to help them with their efforts. If these folks are worried enough to bay several hundred thousand dollars for his help, they clearly think that they have a lot to lose. Let's look at just what that might be.

I'm going to do this in two parts. In the first part of this post, I'm going to look at the claims that these publishing houses are making as they fight to maintain their virtual monopoly on scientific publishing, and explain why these claims are, for the most part, steaming mounds of fresh bovine excrement. In the second part, I'm going to talk about the business model that these publishers use, and take one of these publishers as a case study example to show what they really have at stake.

OK. The publishing houses say that open access is A Bad Thing. It is probably A (Very) Bad Thing for them, but they are also trying to convince us that they are really looking out for our best interests, and that open access is going to be A Bad Thing for us, too. Let's look at the arguments that they are making, starting with the pre-digested sound bites that their 300K+ PR dude gave them:

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as "Public access equals government censorship". . . . "When any government or funding agency houses and disseminates for public consumption only the work it itself funds, that constitutes a form of selection and self-promotion of that entity's interests." (source)

OK, that argument is definitely reality-challenged. The last time I checked, neither "selection" nor "self-promotion" comes anywhere close to meaning the same thing as "censorship." That's just a basic fact, and any attempt to argue otherwise represents an assault on both honesty and the English language.

The reason for this particular dishonest argument is simple: PubMed Central. PubMed Central is a free public repository of life science papers run by the National Institutes of Health, and is actively encouraging all NIH grant recipients to attempt to get permission to have copies of their papers made available there as soon after publication as possible. One of the proposals for mandatory public access would have required PubMed Central access to all NIH-funded papers within six months of publication.

Argument 2 isn't much better:

"government [is] seeking to nationalize science and be a publisher."

Well, let's see. First of all, the government already is a publisher - the Government Printing Office does quite a bit of work. Second, the government isn't seeking to nationalize science any more than it already is. The problem from the perspective of the academic publishers is that the government already pays for a hell of a lot of science - NIH estimated that over 60,000 papers that were funded at least in part by specific NIH grants appeared in journals in 2003.

This brings us to one of my favorite arguments - the peer-review argument:

"Paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles," he adds.

That one is just plain funny. There are already journals (like the PLoS collective) that are peer-reviewed to the same standard as any other scientific journal.

Now that we've looked at the claims of the academic publishers, let's look at what's really at stake. It should surprise nobody to learn that the answer is money. Publishing academic journals is a very big, and very, very profitable business. Elsevier, which publishes thousands of journals, reported that their estimated profits for the first six months of 2006 were 196 million UK pounds. That's on the high side of 350 million US dollars, and that is a profit (not income) figure for a six-month period. (And it was up 9% from the previous year.) Wiley is a smaller publisher, and their reported 2006 profits from Scientific, Technical, and Medical publishing were nearly 90 million.

One of the reasons that journals are such a cash cow for publishing houses is because they let the publishers do something that most businesses can only dream of - get something for free, and sell it at very high prices. That's because, as things currently stand, they way science operates is in their favor both ways.

At the production end, the author of a journal article receives no payment. The peer reviewers receive no payment. In many (if not most) cases, the editor receives - wait for it - no payment. Scientists do these things because they are an expected part of being a scientist, and you cannot advance professionally if you don't do them. Writing articles is a particularly big deal in that regard - unless you are actively publishing, you can probably kiss your career goodbye. Doing peer review and editing aren't quite as vital, but they are still important - particularly when the time comes for tenure, or to try and convince a funder that you are a good enough scientist to be worth funding.

At the sales end, scientists need access to journals. Without access to journals, it is very hard to find out what is going on in your field. Unless you can keep up with the field, you are going to have a very hard time doing research that is new, relevant, and not duplicated by other things that have been published recently. And if you aren't doing research that is new, relevant, and not duplicated, you are going to have a really hard time writing publishable papers. Which complete's the circle nicely.

This situation provides the for-profit publishers with a fantastic opportunity. Scientists are desparate to get their work published, so it's easy to get them to give their articles away. Scientists are eager to prove that they are an active part of the research community in their area, because that helps them build their reputations, so they are willing to do that work for free. Scientists need access to the literature, so they are willing to pay (or, more often, beg their school library to pay) insanely high subscription prices for those very same journals.

Open access won't change most of that, particularly if there is a period of time built in where articles are not available for free. But there is at least a small chance that it might cut into profits a bit, and when you're bringing in half a billion or more a year, half a million is probably a small price to pay to try and keep things from changing.

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I used to be an employee of Elsevier (not by choice -- a software company I worked for was acquired by them). Your characterization is accurate. They are basically in the business of charging extortionate rents, as if they owned the only road in town and could charge whatever toll they liked to people who must travel through.

Open access journals like the PLoS ones are starting to eat away at this, but the problem is that the for-profit publishers have locks on the high-prestige journals (like Cell, an Elsevier property).

What's needed is for high-profile scientists (those who have a solid enough reputation that they can afford to take some chances) to throw their weight behind the Open Access journals, making it safer for those still building their reputations to do the same.

Now that I'm out, all I can say is the faster the publishing extortionists slide into irrelevancy the happier I will be.

Obviously scientific publishing is a racket and in the interest of giving taxpayers access to information they've paid for something needs to be done.

Per Nature:

"Since 2005, the NIH has asked all researchers that it funds to send copies of accepted papers to the archive, but only a small percentage actually do. Congress is expected to consider a bill later this year that would make submission compulsory."

I would expand that to any work which is connected in any manner to institutions which receive public funding. An electronic gov't archive might impinge on trade journal revenue but that's just the way the cookie crumbles. I doubt it will be a serious impact because U.S. laws won't apply to papers generated outside the U.S., not all papers will be subject to public archive, and so because the archive isn't complete then the usual suspects will still pay the premium for inclusive content. But at least this will stop the unfair practice of these journals taking unfair advantage of taxpayer monies.

Maybe it will, maybe it won't have great effect. If such a law gets pushed through in the US, the EU might follow. SE Asia, not so likely - except if they eye it as a chance to remove the lock that American publishers have on the prestigeous journals.

- JS