There are competing interests, and there are competing interests. In recent years, there has been a growing Open Access (OA) movement, that advocates that scientific research be published for open access. So, not only should people be able to download scientific papers for free, they should also be able to reuse the results for their own experiments. Creative Commons, an organization that came up the the Creative Commons licenses that allow for creators of original works to give others rights that go beyond fair use in copyright law, has been among the organizations at the forefront of Open Access. They even have a separate branch, called Science Commons, that specifically deals with opening up scientific research.
Science Commons was understandably delighted at the NIH Public Access Policy. According to this policy, the National Institute of Health (a governmental organization of the United States) mandated that all research conducted with NIH grants be released to the public within a year of publication.
Recently, a bill was proposed by John Conyers, a Democratic House Representative from Michigan (a United States state) that would have the effect of scrapping the NIH public access policy, and effectively making it impossible for such policies to be instituted. The act was titled the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act”. Many in the blogosphere and scientific community were up in arms at this act. Consider, for instance, that 33 Nobel Laureates apparently opposed the bill. Or consider two posts by Lawrence Lessig and Michael Eisen in the Huffington Post, suggesting that Conyers’ decision to reintroduce the bill was influenced by the campaign contributions he received from commercial publishers. Conyers’ reply was severely trashed by Michael Eisen, Peter Subers, and Lawrence Lessig. Blog posts by Paul Courant, Molly Kleinman, and numerous others. Clearly, the bill hasn’t gone down well with a lot of open access advocates.
What precisely is the problem?
There are a number of arguments for making open access mandatory rather than voluntary, at least in certain contexts. One is the moral argument: taxpayers are paying for the research, so they have a right to access that research. This argument in and of itself isn’t extremely strong. After all, if we really want to be fair to taxpayers, shouldn’t taxpayers get to vote on how the NIH spends its money in the first place. Also, considering that only U.S. taxpayers are paying for the research, shouldn’t the open access policy make the materials openly available only in the United States, so that other countries do not free-ride off the money of U.S. taxpayers? Further, shouldn’t people who pay more taxes be given greater privilege in terms of the level of access they get? Further, considering that most taxpayers would not be interested in reading medical and health-related research, doesn’t this effectively subsidize researchers at the cost of publishers, while keeping the majority of taxpayers exactly where they are?
The taxpayer argument doesn’t seem to be a very strong argument logically, but I think it carries good moral and emotional overtones, which is why it is touted so much.
A more valid reason is the argument that opening up the findings of research creates very strong positive externalities for further research. Thus, a lot of other researchers can benefit from opened up research and thus benefit science, even though these researchers would not have found it personally worth it to subscribe to the journal. Further, science papers, once freely available, can be used by people who may not have tried them out in the past, such as high school students, people with health problems, and others.
Of course, these positive externalities aren’t just achieved by putting up papers for free — what’s probably more important is to make the papers visible and available to large numbers of people who wouldn’t have thought of using them beforehand. Which is why the NIH and PubMedCentral need to not just have easily available stuff, they need to capture the attention of people and tell them where to go to get the best information. After all, a lot of people outside the research institutes that subscribe to journals may very well be unaware of where to go, and the places they may first turn to are likely to be personal friends, family physicians, or universal resources on the Internet such as Google or Wikipedia. So public access without public awareness doesn’t help much. Nonetheless, public access could create significant positive externalities.
But this still begs the question of why public access should be made mandatory, rather than simply letting scientists make their own choice. Frankly, I do not see any good general reasons why public access should be made mandatory, but specific reasons based on the current balance of power may exist. For instance, it may be that academic tenure and research grants rely heavily on publication in certain journals, and thus, researchers are at the mercy of the terms and conditions offered by the journals. These journals, in turn, find releasing findings to the public detrimental to the business model. In the absence of sufficient competition in the journal space, journals are able to dictate terms to authors, who in turn are more concerned with keeping their jobs, positions, and research grants than with fighting stubbornly for open access. In this case, external regulation by the NIH changes defaults.
More long-term solutions
Feelings within academic communities about the role of journals are mixed, slanting towards the negative. This is why a lot of the commentary about commercial, non-open-access publishers is confused. One bunch of commentators argue (as in this blog post about the profits of Elsevier and LexisNexis) that commercial publishers squeeze huge profit margins while hapless researchers and librarians are forced to accept degrading terms. Hence, they should be replaced by non-profit foundations. Others argue that commercial publishers have very narrow and slender profit margins, which is why publishing is not commercially viable and should be moved out of the hands of commercial publishers. A blend of these views argues that commercial publishing used to be extremely profitable, but the new Internet architecture is changing things. (It is interesting to see that activists can feel more enthused both by their opponents doing well (which gears them up to fight) and by their opponents doing poorly (which makes them feel satisfied)).
I suspect, though, that if commercial publishers have any power that allows them to make huge profits, that power has been handed to them by academia. The researchers and librarians are far from helpless — they write the stuff and they buy it, and they are in a position to dictate terms. The fact that many researchers do not use open access as a criterion when determining where to publish findings is because they have few incentives to do so. (Anyway, most of their colleagues are in universities that have subscriptions to that journal). If tenure review committees chose to give preference to publication in an open-access journal for other factors being the same, there would be more competition to publish in such journals.
On the usage side, since most library users at universities tend not to have to pay for individual access to journal articles, they tend not to be price-sensitive and hence not to care about whether access is open. They do care, though, that they should be able to access any journal article from anywhere. The library managements do care, of course, but universities spend so much on so many other things of questionable importance that cutting down on journal subscriptions isn’t the first thing on their mind. They may lack the energy or the incentive to bargain hard with commercial publishers to lower prices.
If greater competition is to be encouraged in commercial publishing, it should begin by changing the criteria by which researchers are evaluated everywhere. Once people start becoming conscious of issues such as open access while submitting papers, there will be a greater wealth of open access content, and with this greater wealth, libraries can make more credible threats to commercial publishers to withdraw subscription unless they lower rates and/or adopt open access policies.
Economic crisis: bargaining chip for libraries
As I’ve described above, the main problem with pushing for competition in commercial publishing is that researchers have other things to worry about, library users don’t have to pay for access, and the most influential libraries are also usually rich enough to afford subscriptions. They cannot make credible threats to withdraw subscriptions when they’re flush with money, simply because they’d rather not draw the ire of researchers, who don’t want to have the inconvenience of not having subscriptions.
But economic crisis may paradoxically give libraries greater bargaining power. Constrained for resources, libraries can threaten to withdraw subscriptions, and many libraries at large universities have started doing so. Consider, for instance, that Harvard University is laying off librarians and cutting subscriptions. The increased bargaining power of libraries means that journals either have to justify themselves to libraries in terms of reduced costs or increased importance to library users.
(That poverty can lead to greater bargaining power is not a new concept. Poorer and more cash-strapped consumers are usually more aggressive at looking for better deals, hence forcing producers to compete more. Cash-strapped corporations can be more aggressive bargainers for their suppliers, since finding the cheapest supplier gets increased importance).
I personally think that the “fair copyright in research works” act is, on balance, a bad thing. The NIH public access policy seems a good thing, largely because of its indirect effects (though I cannot comment on whether a specific time-frame of one year is too long, too short, or just right), but I also believe that its greater importance would be to introduce openness and breadth of availability of one’s research as a parameter to evaluate researchers. The NIH’s policy may have helped in bringing this to the surface, but systemic changes in incentives across the board is what is necessary.
At the end of the day, it is possible that a lot of commercial publishers will embrace open access, perhaps with a lag time (such as the NIH’s one year). Some commercial publishers may offer more of immediate circulation traded off with a greater time gap for open access. In other words, open access may be traded partly for other benefits, but it may hopefully be one of the items to be bargained and competed about.
I discovered some old articles in the AMS Notices on related issues:
Scientific Pulishing: A Mathematician’s Viewpoint by Joan S. Birman, July 2000 (Volume 47, Number 7)
Reforming Scholarly Publishing in the Sciences: A Librarian Perspective by Joseph J. Bramin and Mary Case, April 1998 (Volume 45, Number 4)
Pricing of Scientific Publications: A Commercial Publisher’s Point of View by Edwin F. Beschler, November 1998 (Volume 45, Number 10).