Friday, June 16, 2006

On donation and midwives

The notion that scientists ‘donate’ their research articles to journals is one that seems fairly widespread and it pops up in official reports such as lately in the “Study on the Economic and Technical Evolution of the Scientific Publication Markets in Europe” (download PDF). The context in this report (and often elsewhere) is concern about cost-effective use of public funds. On page 16 one can read “…the output of research is typically not bought by journals but ‘donated’ by publicly-funded researchers…” At least ‘donated’ is in inverted commas. Between the lines one reads “this is a problem”.

It is an interesting notion indeed, this laudable collective philanthropy. Scientists usually do not expect royalties from journal articles. Two, closely related, questions arise: why do they donate to journals, and why do they not expect royalties? Are they truly that unselfishly concerned with journals?

Would the problem not be instantly rectified if scientists stopped donating articles to journals? Who knows? Maybe the best thing is to try?

Or are they not donating to publishers, but to the world? How can that be a problem? To my knowledge there is not a scientific journal publisher in the world who would dream of standing in the way of a researcher donating his or her research to the world. Publishers are simply not involved if researchers just get on with donating, for instance by publishing their article freely available on the web, such as I’m doing now with this blog entry.

But perhaps it’s not that simple. Research donated that way may not be taken that seriously by the world. And particularly not by tenure-committees and the like. Unless, of course, it has the formal imprimatur of a peer-reviewed journal. In science, publishers are not, strange as it may sound, needed so much for publishing per se. But they are for formal publishing. The formal publishing process makes a potentially worthwhile article an actually valuable one. That’s the added value of publishing. Which scientists ask a publisher to add. Without the journal imprimatur, label if you will, the article is grey literature at best. The publisher is therefore a provider of a service to the scientist – not quite the receptacle for donated articles as portrayed.

To perform this service of adding value, a publisher needs to invest. Hire people; rent an office, set up systems and an organisation. That’s why he has to charge money, one way or the other. One way – the traditional way – is via subscriptions or licences; the other is via article processing charges. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but only the latter is an economically sustainable model to provide open access. And it’s not about keeping publishers in business; it’s about keeping a system of peer-reviewed journals going. And about providing sustainable open access to this peer-reviewed literature.

Not everybody agrees. Some believe that we can have free, open access and get institutional libraries to pay for subscriptions and so sustain the system of peer review journals. And they have evidence: the physics community. So it must be universally valid, mustn’t it? A brief digression: when an unsupervised toddler gets hold of a box of matches, lights them one by one, and blows them out again, it is entirely conceivable that the house does not burn down. Nonetheless, a sensible person would take the matches away as soon as he spots the toddler doing this. He would certainly not conclude that there is evidence that toddlers with matches do not burn down houses and proceed to give all toddlers a box of matches.

“We don’t need publishers to keep the peer-reviewed journals going” is a sentiment often expressed, “because we do all the work, such as peer review, ourselves anyway”. The story of the midwife comes to mind. Publishers are no more than the ‘midwife’ in the publishing process. Mark Patterson of PLoS used this analogy to great effect in a few recent presentations, when he pointed out that it would be absurd if the midwife were to restrict access to the child. He’s right. But without stretching the analogy too far, we do need and use the services of midwives widely. (And of course there are large areas of the animal kingdom where births always happen unassisted. But that’s the equivalent of just publishing on the web, without involving a publisher. Do Orang Utangs have the equivalent of midwives? I wouldn’t even be surprised if they do, actually.)

Midwives need sustenance, and so do publishers. Anybody can become a publisher (publishing is not regulated, unlike midwifery in most countries). Those who believe they can do it all themselves, without sustenance, ought to do it all themselves, without sustenance. But please, do make it more than a short-lived hobby-of-the-day. For the sake of science.

Jan Velterop

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