Simple answers to simple questions: Professional academic publishers edition

Afarensis asks Dembski on Open Access: Is He Hypocritcal, Stupid, or Both?

Both.

This is the simple answer to that simple question.

The broader issue of open access is not so simple. While Dembski's understanding of the issue is both hypocritical and stupid, the issue of whether commercial science publishers are hypocritical and stupid remains to be seen.

Evidence for hypocrisy is fairly easy to identify.

Scientists give those publishers their research, typically signing over copyright for that work to the publisher. In many cases those scientists also pay page charges to those same publishers, so that those publishers can have the privilege of taking those scientists' work from them.

Scientists are beginning to feel that this situation is not equitable, and that the restrictions on accessing those publications online hurt not only authors, but researchers in the field. Congress has heard those complaints, and is pushing for NIH funded research to be made available free of charge on some schedule.

They chose to hire PR firms and lobbyists. Their advisor has helped Exxon smear Greenpeace, and worked to rehabilitate Enron's Jeffrey Skilling. His advice to the publishers of scientific journals is to understand that "Media messaging is not the same as intellectual debate," and that they ought to argue that making scientific articles and evidence more accessible "equals government censorship."

Hypocrisy, thy names are Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society.

Whether they are stupid is a harder question. Right now, a chunk of most federal grants winds up going to pay fees to publishers. Those publishers also sell advertising, and charge truly astounding subscription fees. They hire professional editors, and can afford various sorts of specialists. They do not pay their peer reviewers, they don't pay the authors, and they give relatively little back to the scientific community. The exorbitant subscription fees mean that academic libraries are forced to cut subscriptions for interesting but lower profile journals in order to maintain subscriptions to the really essential journals.

The publishers walk away from that system as winners. Society loses. Researchers have a harder time finding existing research, and the public at large has no way to access most original research. This means that even the scientifically literate public could not evaluate new research that could help them make medical decisions, or be more active participants in policy discussions.

There is no question that these publishers add value. But the cost of their journals is many times the cost of journals operated by societies, and the value that they add is in no proportion to the cost differences. Making money like that is certainly good business in the short term, but they are eating their seed corn, weakening the scientific community to make their profits. Whether you consider that stupid isn't simple.

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