(This is the text, with slides, of a lecture presented at the Smithsonian Libraries on March 10, 2014 by Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. Click on any slide to enlarge; italicized notes in parentheses within the text offer links to examples that couldn’t be provided in the original lecture.)
First, here’s the problem: scholarly information costs money. It costs money to create it by doing research; having done the research, it then costs money to turn the results into a publishable document; having turned the results into a publishable document, it then costs money to make the document available to the world and to keep it that way.
Typically, the initial costs of doing research are borne by a combination of funding agencies and academic institutions. Traditionally, the costs of turning research results into publishable documents have been borne by a combination of academic institutions and publishers. And the costs of making the documents available to the world have been borne by publishers. Each of these three entities (funding agencies, academic institutions, and publishers) gets its money from a different pool, though there is some overlap between them: public funding agencies are supported by tax dollars; private ones have their own endowments; academic institutions are funded by a combination of tax dollars, tuition, donations, commercialization revenue, and grants; publishers are usually supported by charging readers (or readers’ agents, usually libraries) for access to the documents they publish.
No one much objects to funding agencies being underwritten by tax dollars, or to universities being funded by taxes and tuition. But publishers charging for access to formally-published scholarship is increasingly controversial for two reasons — one of them economic and one of them philosophical.
The economic consideration arises from aggressive pricing behavior on the part of many commercial scholarly publishers (and some putatively non-profit publishers as well), combined with stagnant library budgets. With journal prices generally rising at roughly four times the Consumer Price Index annually (and sometimes much more than that) and with library budgets generally flat or declining, there is a slow-motion crisis underway in the world of journal subscriptions. Regardless of one’s philosophical view of the current publishing system, the economic problem of mismatch between prices and budgets is a real and pressing one.
The philosophical consideration arises largely from the vexing fact that the content being sold to libraries by publishers originates in the very institutions to which it is being sold. And not only are academic institutions producing the raw content, but they’re providing much of the peer review and editorial work as well, usually without any compensation from the publishers; academics generally consider these services to be part of their contribution to the profession, and they do the work on university time. The idea of then paying what are, in some cases, extortionate prices for access to the fruits of this work is increasingly distasteful to many on the academic side.
The combination of concrete fiscal pressure and a mounting resentment towards publishers who take scholarly content out of academia and then sell it back to academia at a high price has led to the growth of the Open Access movement, which proposes to make published scholarship freely available to the world. This movement has arisen not only because the current system is fiscally unsustainable, but also from the feeling that it’s morally indefensible — that it’s simply wrong to deny people access to scholarship, especially when the public underwrote the research from which it originates.
Now, let’s go back to the four-part problem I outlined a moment ago. I said that it costs money to perform research, and it costs money to turn research results into a publishable scholarly document, and it then costs money to make the document available to the world and to archive it permanently.
That third statement is actually much less true than it used to be, because with the advent of the World Wide Web (and, more particularly, with the emergence of free blogging platforms) the cost of simply disseminating one’s research results is now negligible. Today, any scholar who wants to bypass the formal publication system and make her findings freely available to the whole world can do so at essentially no cost either to herself or to her readers.
So if dissemination is essentially cost-free, why have traditional publishers survived? Why do scholars — who presumably want readership more than anything else, so that their ideas and discoveries can have an impact on their disciplines and bring recognition both to themselves and their institutions — why would they willingly feed their manuscripts into a system that slows down the process of dissemination and then restricts access to those papers, letting them be read only by those who can pay for the privilege or who work at institutions that pay on their behalf?
One answer is that scholars don’t, in fact, typically want maximum readership above all else. Scholarly communication is about much more than just telling the world what you’ve thought and discovered. It’s also about review and certification. Telling the world that you’ve discovered a cure for cancer is easy — Google the phrase “cancer cure” and you’ll find a thousand people making just that claim. What’s harder — what scholars and scientists want, and what costs money — is the process of taking submission of those claims; weeding out the obvious nonsense; subjecting the remainder to coordinated review; editing and formatting the papers that make it through that review; and creating and maintaining a robust and well-organized archive of them. Authors want that process to exist because when their work makes it through the process, it signals to their peers that the work is solid scholarship and should be taken seriously. Any model that proposes to do some or all of these things and then give the resulting documents to readers at no charge faces a problem: it will have to get financial support from someone other than readers.
I mentioned earlier that academia underwrites some parts of this process, because the editors of scholarly journals and the peer reviewers who provide first- or second-pass filtering of submissions are very often academics themselves, whose time is paid for by their host universities rather than by publishers. However, it’s also true that their contribution to the scholarly certification process only accounts for some of the work and the cost that go into that process. Substantial costs are still borne by publishers as well.
So the basic challenge is this: the costs of producing scholarship have traditionally been underwritten partly by subsidies of academic time and effort, and partly by access fees paid by libraries and readers. To make the content freely available to readers threatens the viability of scholarly publishers — a few of whom are large and very profitable multinational corporations, but most of whom are nonprofit discipline-based organizations that regard publishing as a core element of their missions and depend on publishing revenue to underwrite services for their members.
Open Access models vary in their responses to this challenge, which is to be expected. What is distressing is what seems to me a tendency, particularly among the most prominent voices in the OA community, to insist that discussion of these models focus exclusively on their benefits, and to discourage and punish any discussion of their costs and downsides.
Let’s look at those two statements separately.
First, the statement that OA models vary in their response to the cost challenge. The two broad models currently most prevalent are generally referred to as Gold and Green. Under the Gold model, articles are made freely available to the public immediately upon publication, and the publisher’s revenue stream is usually preserved either by some form of institutional subsidy or by payments exacted from authors. Under the Green model, articles are published as usual in toll-access journals; however, some version of each article (often the final peer-reviewed manuscript) is archived in a repository and made available to the general public. In many cases, an embargo period of six or twelve months is imposed on access to the deposited article in order to protect at least some of the publisher’s ability to sell access to the formally-published version.
Each of these models addresses the fiscal challenges involved with providing free access in a different way. Each involves costs and benefits, and each of them entails consequences both intended and unintended.
An important, positive, and intended consequence of Gold OA is free public access to high-quality scholarly information. Another important (though unintended) consequence of the Gold model lies in the fact that, since it provides for immediate free access, the publisher’s incentive to maintain a high quality of output is weakened. This isn’t to say it disappears entirely or that Gold OA journals aren’t any good — some are very good, and some aren’t (just like toll-access journals). It’s only to point out that when your business model does not rely on people buying your product, the incentive to invest in a high-quality product is relatively weak. This is a problem when the journal in question is supported by institutional subsidy — but when a Gold OA journal is funded by author payments, the incentive problem becomes far worse. In fact, with an author-pays model, the quality incentives move from weak to actively perverse. If your revenue increases with a higher rate of acceptance, then there’s a strong incentive to accept papers without regard to quality. The implications of this perverse incentive are serious, and are playing out in what has come to be called the problem of “predatory publishing.” Another downside to the author-pays version of Gold OA lies in the fact that authors don’t typically pay these fees themselves, but instead very often write them into research grant proposals. This means that funds are directed away from the support of new research and towards the free dissemination of prior research results. When OA journals are supported by institutional subventions, then the problem is one of opportunity cost — what can’t the organization do because it’s supporting an OA journal?
An important, positive, and intended consequence of Green OA is free public access to high-quality scholarship. An important (and at least partly unintended) consequence of this model is that it undermines the ability of publishers to recoup the investments they make in selecting and preparing articles for publication and in maintaining an ongoing archive of them afterwards. In the case of this model, the perverse incentive lies not with publishers, but with those who encourage and facilitate the model itself. Green OA relies on publishers to continue adding value to raw manuscripts, but by making the resulting articles available for free it reduces the incentive to pay for them; this threatens to put publishers out of business and thus to undermine the Green OA model. The only way Green OA can succeed in the long run is if it works poorly — if the versions available for free are substantially inferior to the versions available at a cost, or if they’re out of date or hard to find. If the model works so well that it results in universal, easy, immediate, and comprehensive access to high-quality articles at no cost, the incentive to pay for access disappears completely — and so do the publishers on whom the model depends.
What I’ve tried to do up to this point is lay out, as accurately and fairly as I can, the issues that have given rise to the OA movement, the dynamics that currently prevail, and both the positive and negative implications of those dynamics. I hope that from my presentation so far it’s been clear that OA offers both very real benefits and advantages, and very real costs and disadvantages. It has always seemed to me that the costs, benefits, merits, challenges, implications, and consequences of any dissemination model can (and should) be assessed and analyzed with some degree of dispassion and objectivity.
This brings us to the second statement I made a moment ago — the one about an unwillingness in the OA advocacy community to discuss (or even countenance discussion of) these issues in that way. I realize that’s a strong statement, and it carries with it an obligation not only to provide examples, but to make sure that the examples I provide are truly representative and not just cherry-picked outliers that misrepresent or exaggerate the problem. Because I recognize that obligation, I’m going to make the text of this lecture available online with links to the examples I provide so that readers can assess their fairness for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions as to my trustworthiness as a messenger and the seriousness of the problem I’m presenting. (That’s also why I’m reading the text here, which is not how I normally deliver talks.) The text and slides will be posted on a blog that I’ve established for this purpose. Comments will be open, and I’ll respond as best I can.
Some are going to be tempted to dismiss what I say on this topic out of hand, because I write for the Scholarly Kitchen, a professional blog where scholarly communication issues (including OA) are discussed in a critical mode, and which is often characterized by OA advocates as an anti-OA forum. This is an unfortunate but common response, and it illustrates the problem I’m going to describe. For example, recently I published a posting in the Scholarly Kitchen that pointed out some serious problems with ROARMAP, an influential registry of institutional OA policies. Here’s one response from an OA advocate. Notice how, instead of addressing the pervasive errors and misinformation I documented in my posting, it simply asserts ROARMAP’s wonderfulness and attacks the Scholarly Kitchen for talking about ROARMAP’s problems. This is only one tweet, of course, but similar reactions from others are documented in the comments section of the posting. This is not rational discussion; it’s an attempt to avoid it.
Here’s another, from the blog of one very prominent and influential OA advocate. Notice the insinuation of sinister motives and the name-calling — my posting constituted “skulduggery,” the blog is referred to as “the Scholarly Scullery,” etc.
The ROARMAP site itself also provides an example of the dynamic I’m describing: instead of accurately and objectively presenting data about institutional OA policies, it presents them inaccurately and in a manner that seems clearly designed to exaggerate those aspects of the policies that the site’s owners find most congenial. (Again, I’ll provide links both to ROARMAP and to my discussion of its problems so that those interested can judge for themselves.) Nor is ROARMAP the only such example: the MELIBEA registry, based in Barcelona, is, if anything, less accurate and more tendentious than ROARMAP in its presentation of OA policies, as I showed in the subsequent discussion in the Scholarly Kitchen.
Much of the controversy about these registries arises from the strange insistence, on the part of some prominent members of the OA community, on referring to all OA policies as “mandates,” even if they have nothing mandatory about them. The only reason I can think of for that insistence is a propagandistic one — though I’m certainly open to other ideas about what gives rise to it. I actually asked a couple of the people responsible for ROARMAP why the systematic exaggeration is necessary. One chose not to respond because I write for the Scholarly Kitchen. The other responded by simply repeating (at great length) the assertion that all OA policies should be called “mandates” regardless of whether they’re mandatory, and by darkly speculating about whose interests I was trying to serve by raising the issue. (See, again, the comments section of my Scholarly Kitchen posting on ROARMAP.) Again, this is not rational discussion; it’s an attempt to shout down and discredit the messenger.
Another example: when the American Historical Association called on institutions to allow graduate students to embargo their dissertations for up to six years (instead of the three typically allowed now), this was characterized by OA supporters as “shocking” and “regressive” and as retrograde and paternalistic; in one case, a scholar who spoke out in favor of the AHA’s position was publicly characterized as “dumb as a box of hair.” Fair enough; this is the Internet, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with expressing your opinion. What undermines rational discourse, though, is when you criticize a statement that you have not made a good-faith attempt to understand or even to read. In this case, many of the AHA’s harshest critics seem actually not to have read the statement, since a good number of them characterized it as a call for embargoes, which it wasn’t — it was a call for authors to be allowed to embargo their dissertations for a longer period if they so choose. One critic who did read the statement and saw how uncontroversial its actual content was, chose, therefore, to criticize the statement’s “subtext” instead of its text — or, in other words, to take it to task for things it didn’t say but which the critic was sure it really meant. It doesn’t seem to me that name-calling, misrepresentation, and mind-reading are examples of rational discussion. Instead, they are attempts to avoid and derail it.
The most egregious example of this kind of reaction, however, came in response to science journalist John Bohannon’s study of editorial practices at several hundred OA journals. He orchestrated a sting operation, whereby he submitted a putatively scholarly paper (which was actually nonsense) to 304 author-pays OA journals, just over half of which accepted it for publication. His finding reflects the perverse incentive I mentioned earlier — a journal that makes its money by accepting papers rather than by selling access to high-quality content has a natural incentive to accept low-quality papers. Instead of acknowledging this problem and expressing concern over the degree to which it is reflected in the fraudulent practices of quite a few OA journals — practices that Bohannon demonstrated conclusively — the OA community generally responded by attacking Bohannon. (See, for example, here, here, and [especially] here; the DOAJ’s response, in which it accused Bohannon of racism, has apparently been taken down. In contrast to these, prominent OA advocate Peter Suber’s analysis, though critical on balance, struck me as admirably honest and even-handed.) Now to be clear, Bohannon’s investigation wasn’t perfect and there are legitimate criticisms to be made of it; what is not in question, though, is that he uncovered a very serious problem among this population of OA journals.
What this all means, I believe, is that OA’s growth and progress are being hampered by a “shoot the messenger” culture that inhibits the OA community’s ability to deal with real issues and challenges. The only challenges that are allowed to be discussed are those related to how best to spread the word of OA, how to implement OA programs, and how to achieve maximum adoption of OA policies. Challenges and problems that arise from OA itself are not to be discussed; attempts to discuss them are punished.
There is another aspect to this problem, though, and it has less to do with punishing those who raise questions or concerns than it does with trying to prevent or preempt concerns from being expressed in the first place. I’ve noticed two strategies along these lines: one is to talk constantly about OA’s inevitability, its inexorable rise, its dramatic growth, and so forth in terms that have more in common with war propaganda than with rational discourse. This tendency can sometimes be a bit embarrassing, but it’s not terribly serious — flag-waving has its place. More troublesome is a second strategy, which is to encourage OA advocates to pretend that the war is already won. Consider this quote from a major Open Access leader and lobbyist (taken from this interview with Peter Suber):
I think it is critical for us to recognize that the moment is in our hands when we need to stop thinking of Open Access as fighting to become the norm for research and scholarship, and to begin acting in ways that acknowledge that Open Access is the norm. (Emphasis in original.)
This is not a call for rational discourse; it’s a call for magical thinking. I have seen estimates of OA’s penetration of scholarly publishing ranging from 2.5% of articles (under Gold and hybrid models) to 20% (under Gold and Green combined), but even at the top end it’s quite clear that toll-access models remain very much the norm in scholarly publishing. Pretending otherwise might be inspiring, but it also undermines our ability to talk in useful and realistic ways about the challenges that exist in the real world. More perniciously, it also erodes our motivation to address real problems created by OA initiatives; after all, if the war is already won, what’s the point of raising concerns or pointing out problems?
Another example of magical thinking is the common assertion that, in cases where the public has paid for the research, this means the public has paid for the articles that result from it. This argument is implied in phrases like “taxpayer access to publicly-funded research.” It uses a word game to produce an economic sleight-of-hand illusion: by pretending that the terms “research” and “article” mean the same thing, you hide the significant costs involved in turning research results into articles. What the public funds is the research itself, not the costly and subsequent processes that turn research results into documents that can be accessed by the public. (You might as well argue that since the public paid for the subway to be built, no one should have to pay to ride.)
What about OA opponents? Are they more willing to discuss these matters in a reasonable way? In fairness, I obviously have to address this question. The problem is, I can hardly think of anyone who, to my knowledge, actually opposes OA (other than, perhaps, Jeffrey Beall, who has done excellent work on the problem of predatory publishing but whose recent article attacking the OA movement was, in my view, unbalanced, inaccurate, and unfair). Even my fellow chefs in the Scholarly Kitchen — despite the way we are regularly characterized in the OA blogosphere — are not generally opposed to it; several of us, in fact (including myself) are actively involved in supporting OA programs. In my experience, what gets a person characterized as an enemy is not necessarily actual opposition to OA, but rather any public suggestion that OA entails problems and costs as well as benefits.
Now, it’s important to note that some organizations — particularly organizations of publishers and authors, such as the DC Principles Coalition, the Association of American Publishers, and the Copyright Alliance — sometimes oppose particular OA initiatives (for example here, here, and here), and some have taken an organizational stance that can reasonably be construed as anti-OA. (For example, see the AAP’s statement on OA here, and the DC Principles Coalition’s here; neither is explicitly anti-OA, but in both cases the anti-OA message seems to me strongly implicit.) But none of these organizations or their representatives have, to my knowledge, engaged in the kind of shaming and conversation-stopping behaviors that I see regularly on the advocacy side. (If others have witnessed such behaviors from that end of the spectrum, I’d like to hear about them, and I encourage you to share them in discussion, either here today or on the blog.)
What we need is an environment in which it’s possible for all stakeholders to speak openly, candidly, and rationally about the pros and cons, the costs and benefits, of all publishing models — not without fear of contradiction, but without being shamed, silenced, or accused of bad faith simply for raising important and troublesome issues. When discussing OA we have to be able to talk about both its benefits and its costs, because when we insist on talking only about benefits, we’re not engaging in analysis; we are engaging in advocacy. Advocacy has its place, but its limitations should be obvious: it’s in the nature of advocacy to try to quash any suggestion that the thing for which one is advocating produces anything other than benefits. This seriously limits the advocate’s ability to deal in a reasonable and effective way with real-world problems.
The irony here is that when we push analysis aside in favor of advocacy, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot. Advocacy is actively counterproductive if it means punishing people for raising real issues and problems. You can only ignore reality for so long before it finally wins. To be clear, none of this is to say that anyone should stop advocating for OA. By all means, advocate away. What I do hope is that those who do so will refrain from demonizing, misrepresenting, and silencing those who try to discuss OA in a spirit of critical analysis.
I should point out here that not everyone working for Open Access is trying to silence dissenters and doubters. But the voices trying to discourage discussion and debate, and to shame anyone who raises concerns, are loud and public, and I’d be much less concerned about that if I saw more prominent figures in the movement standing up publicly in favor of open debate and critical analysis. There are lots of voices in the OA community calling on us to fall into line, to join the movement, to accept that either resistance is futile or victory is inevitable (depending on your perspective). I wish I heard more voices inviting us to raise concerns, to help identify and resolve issues, to anticipate problems. I wish I saw the embrace of dissent that most of us in libraries would, in any other context, consider to be an essential aspect of intellectual engagement. Some skeptics are willing to raise their voices even if by doing so they run the risk of being put on an enemies list. But others have decided that keeping their heads down is the better and safer path. The sad thing is that the OA community would almost certainly benefit, in the long run, from listening to what the critics and questioners have to say.
So how do we do it? How do we foster an environment in which critical and constructive discussion of OA is possible? Here are six steps that I believe all of us — no matter where we sit on the advocacy spectrum — can take:
Acknowledge that all models have pros and cons. Any discussion that proceeds from the assumption that Open Access (or toll access, or any other model of scholarly communication) has only upsides or only downsides is a discussion that will not be honest and is highly unlikely to go in productive directions. Even a system that produces universal access to scholarship is going to have downsides that impact dimensions of scholarship other than access. Here’s a thought experiment that each of us can undertake in the privacy of our own minds: think of your favorite access model. Maybe you’re a for-profit publisher and subscription revenues are essential to your business; maybe you’re an OA advocate and your ideal scenario is 100% Green OA with no embargoes. Ask yourself this question: “If my ideal solution were universally adopted, what would be the downsides for scholarship?” If you can’t think of any, then one of two things is true: either your preferred model is perfect, or you’re not examining your model fairly.
Comprehend, then respond. Too often, productive conversation is derailed because one or more of the participants is responding not to what was said, but to some distortion or misrepresentation of what was said. Each of us can be careful to avoid that mistake and can quickly take responsibility when we do make it.
Focus on the substance of statements, not on the supposed motivations of the speaker. It’s a difficult and unpleasant fact, but a fact nevertheless, that a miserable person of ill will can speak the truth. While the speaker’s intent is not entirely irrelevant, when it comes to finding workable solutions to real-world problems, it’s ultimately the truth or untruth of what is said that matters most. Attributing ill intent to others is, far too often, a ploy for distracting people from the substantive issue. (This is a major flaw, incidentally, with Jeffrey Beall’s article about OA — it focuses too much on what he thinks OA advocates really want rather than on what they actually do and say. It’s also a major flaw in much of the OA community’s commentary on the Bohannon sting.)
Avoid “poisoned well” and ad hominem arguments. This is related to the question of motivation, but it’s not quite the same thing. “Poisoned well” and ad hominem arguments say “no matter what that guy says, we shouldn’t listen because he’s a bad person or believes in Bad Thing X.” Anytime you hear someone using this line of argument, chances are good that he’s afraid of what will happen if you look closely at the issue in question, and so is trying to shift your focus away from the issue and towards the defects of the person raising it. None of us should engage in this kind of argumentation.
Take unintended and unexpected consequences seriously. No matter what initiative you undertake — a new toll-access journal, an Open Access policy, an institutional repository, a change to copyright law — some of the consequences of your initiative will be ones you intend and wish for, and others will be unexpected and undesired. One of the dangers of advocacy is that it carries with it an incentive to discount the unintended and the unexpected and to focus on the intended and the expected. Advocacy leads us to focus on convenient truths and to either deny or downplay inconvenient ones. Again, this is not to say that there’s no place for advocacy in the conversation about OA — only that we need to be aware of its limitations as a frame for useful and responsible discussion.
Invite all stakeholders to the table. Let me close by sharing a quote from my colleague T. Scott Plutchak, Director of the Lister Hill Library at the University of Alabama — and, for the record, an OA supporter. A few years ago, Scott participated in a Scholarly Publishing Roundtable that was convened by the U.S. Congress under the aegis of the House Science and Technology Committee. The roundtable included representatives from both the public and the private sectors including librarians, scholars, academic administrators, toll-access publishers, OA publishers, and scholarly society officers. The documents and recommendations resulting from the group’s work can be found on the AAU’s website, and they are very interesting; one outcome worth noting is that two members of the group (one from a large commercial science publisher and another from a large nonprofit OA publisher) chose formally not to endorse its findings. (Their statements of dissent can be found here and here.) Plutchak later observed that
the recommendations of the Roundtable. . . were largely incorporated into the America COMPETES Act and substantially informed the requirements laid out in the Holdren OSTP memo. The Roundtable remains, as far as I’m aware, the only significant OA-related activity to have active and equal participation from librarians, publishers large and small, commercial and not-for-profit, as well as senior representatives from the university community. Certainly its success in influencing federal policy is a reflection of that, despite the fact that it was that very inclusiveness that led to its being immediately dismissed by many of the loud voices in the debate. It has been explicit in our discussions with policy makers that they are seeking moderate and inclusive views to help develop policy. (Emphasis mine.)
Moderation and inclusiveness are unpopular notions in many segments of our society today, and nowhere more so, I believe, than in the scholarly-communication wars. The problem is that when we’re dealing with complex problems involving many stakeholders, needs that are in tension with each other, and inevitable tradeoffs, moderation and inclusiveness are essential to a rational and productive discussion.