Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Taking the trip without paying the ship? Episode 2

Peter Suber, on his Open Access News blog, has made several comments on my previous posting. They all warrant a response, but first I'd like to make the general point that much of what separates the OA-advocacy sphere from the publishing sphere comes down to deep-rooted and stubborn differences of perception.

Such as the idea that researches 'give away' their papers to publishers. It certainly doesn't feel that way on the side of the publishers. There it feels like being asked to perform a service. That's why the process is known as 'submission' and not as 'donation'. Besides, if all this 'giving away' is a bad thing, why would scientists continue to do it? They may be many things, but they're not stupid.

Or the idea that the information in articles is being 'locked-up' by publishers for the sake of control. As far as publishers are concerned, any scientist is completely free to self-publish his articles on his own web sites or in repositories. What causes the 'lock-up' (at least until subscriptions are replaced by other ways of paying for publishers' services) is the requirement to publish in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Not a requirement imposed by publishers. That is not to say that it isn't a useful requirement. One of the main roles of publishers is to provide the structure for a professional, timely and efficient peer-review process to take place, on the scale necessary. Anybody can organise peer review of their own papers and decide not to bother a publisher with it, just as anybody can buy their eggs and wheat from a farmer and proceed to bake their own cake. Both happen, though most people have no time for it, find that they lack the requisite skills, or just find it downright boring. Publishers -- and bakers -- are there to professionalise and speed up that process, offering to take the hassle out of the hands of scientists leaving them to spend their time on where their real interests lie: doing science.

Back to Peter's comments:
"Subscription journals and mandated open access are not compatible." Jan's argument depends on the high level of OA archiving, whether that level is caused by a mandate or by a successful disciplinary culture of self-archiving. It therefore predicts that the near-100% level of OA archiving in physics would kill off subscription journals in physics. But that is not what we see when we look. On the contrary: the American Physical Society (APS) and the Institute of Physics Publishing Ltd (IOPP) have seen no cancellations to date attributable to OA archiving. In fact, both now host mirrors of arXiv and accept submissions from it. They have become symbiotic with OA archiving. We may or may not see the same symbiosis in other fields, as their levels of OA archiving rise to levels now seen in physics. But the experience in physics is enough to falsify the flat prediction that subscription journals and high-volume OA archiving are incompatible. For more on the question whether high-volume OA archiving will cause libraries to cancel subscription journals, see my article from September 2007 (esp. Sections 4-10).
First of all, my argument doesn't depend on a high level of OA-archived content to be valid. If there is a high level of OA content, then potential cancellations are the issue. At a lower level, we see an expectation -- increasingly a demand -- for reductions in the subscription fee. You could call that 'partial cancellation' if you wish. As for the idea that the field of high energy physics demonstrates that subscriptions and self-archiving are compatible, I do wonder why it is that the SCOAP3 initiative was taken. The compatibility that seems to exists in high energy physics is like the fluidity of supercooled water. SCOAP3, the idea of which is to abolish subscriptions altogether, will be the dropping in of the coin around which that water quickly solidifies as ice.

The incompatibility of subscriptions and OA (whether self-archived or otherwise) is as fundamental as the melting point is to supercooled water. In exceptional circumstances, temporary unstable states can occur. I accept that, pragmatically, this unstable state of pseudo-compatibility can occur for a while and runaway cancellations won't necessarily take place until the penny drops properly.

The second of his comments:
Jan assumes that all OA journals charge author-side publication fees. ("They don't give authors a choice and simply refuse to publish articles unless they are paid for by article processing charges....") But in fact most OA journals charge no publication fees. Last month, Bill Hooker's survey of all full-OA journals in the DOAJ found that 67% charged no publication fees. The month before, Caroline Sutton and I found that 83% of society OA journals charged no publication fees.
I'm certainly not assuming that all OA journals charge author-side fees, and I have no reason to doubt the numbers that Bill Hooker and Peter and Caroline come up with. Since the topic at hand was the NIH mandate, however, the question that I have is how many of those 70 to 80% of non-fee-charging OA journals would be acceptable journals for NIH-grantees to publish in?

His third comment:
If "paying the ticket" means paying the publication fee at a fee-based OA journal, then there are two replies. First, the NIH already allows grantees to spend grant funds on such fees. Second, but the NIH does not, and should not, require grantees to publish in OA journals. There aren't yet enough peer-reviewed OA journals in biomedicine to contain the NIH output; and even if there were, such a requirement would severely limit the freedom of authors to publish in the journals of their choice. That's why all funder mandates worldwide focus on green OA, not gold OA.
The freedom of authors to publish in the journals of their choice is important. I fully agree with that. The fact that this is seen as such an important tenet of academic freedom only serves to underscore how important journals are for other reasons than just distribution. That is why I argue that all journals should offer at least the option of immediate OA, and I do take the point of there not being enough journals yet that offer it. (By the way, a journal that offers immediate OA isn’t the same as an OA journal. Journals that offer OA include ‘hybrid’ journals. As the Bethesda Statement clearly says: “Open access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers”.)

The NIH should indeed not require publishing in OA journals and journals that offer OA as an option. But if they are truly aiming to have, eventually, a solid and sustainable OA publishing system, they could at least advise publishing with OA and make clearer and more widely known that they allow grantees to spend grant funds on article processing fees for immediate open access.

Peter's last comment, an extensive one:
If "paying the ticket" means paying for peer review even at TA journals, when grantees submit their work to TA journals, then the reply is somewhat different. TA journals are already compensated by subscription revenue for organizing peer review. The NIH mandate will protect their subscriptions by delaying OA for up to 12 months and by providing OA only to author manuscripts rather than to published articles. In the September 2007 article I mentioned above (Section 6), I list four incentives for libraries to continue their subscriptions even after an OA mandate. If the argument is that these protections don't suffice, and that the risk to publishers is too great, then my answer is that Congress and the NIH have to balance the interests of publishers with the interests of researchers and the public. Here's how I described that balance last August:

Publishers like to say that they add value by facilitating peer review by expert volunteers. This is accurate but one-sided. What they leave out is that the funding agency adds value as well, and that the cost of a research project is often thousands of times greater than the cost of publication. If adding value gives one a claim to control access to the result, then at least two stakeholder organizations have that claim, and one of them has a much weightier claim than the publisher. But if publishers and taxpayers both make a contribution to the value of peer-reviewed articles arising from publicly-funded research, then the right question is not which side to favor, without compromise, but which compromise to favor. So far I haven't heard a better solution than a period of exclusivity for the publisher followed by free online access for the public....Publishers who want to block OA mandates per se, rather than just negotiate the embargo period, are saying that there should be no compromise, that the public should get nothing for its investment, and that publishers should control access to research conducted by others, written up by others, and funded by taxpayers.
The first two sentences sound suspiciously like "free-riding on the bus is OK, because the bus company is already compensated by the revenue from season ticket holders". I'm pretty sure that is not what he means, but what does he mean?

His reasoning on the balance struck is also shaky. Yes, publishers do add value, but why is saying so implying that they are the only ones adding value? And they don't claim to control access. They have to as long as there is no widely accepted other way for them to charge for the value they add than subscriptions. That's the beauty of author-side payment: it naturally removes the need to control access that comes with the subscription model. 'Gold' -- paying for the services you ask a publisher to perform -- is so much cleaner than messing around with compromised subscriptions and embargoes. And it would result in OA immediately upon publication as well, and not 12 months later.

Anyway, perhaps this NIH mandate is a spur for publishers and societies to accelerate moving to 'gold', at least for articles falling under these mandates.

Jan Velterop


  1. the question that I have is how many of those 70 to 80% of non-fee-charging OA journals would be acceptable journals for NIH-grantees to publish in?

    Here I show the NIH compatibility of all DOAJ publishers with more than 50 journals, plus Nature, Science and Ann Rev. As you can see, all the big names are there and of ~8500 journals only ~500 (from 3 publishers out of 32) are not compatible with the mandate.

    It is difficult to imagine anyone so picky that they cannot find a compatible journal in there.

  2. Bill, are you sure the link (Here I show... etc) is the right one? It doesn't link to any DOAJ journals. In fact, it doesn't seem to link to any list of Open Access journals, but to a list of 'green' journals in ROMEO, few, if any, of which are OA as far as I know. My point is that among the DOAJ OA journals that Peter Suber referred to (see here: http://www.doaj.org/) and specifically among those that charge no fee on either side (the reader or the author), it is my guess that there are very few that NIH grantees will find acceptable venues for their quality articles. I'm ready to be surprised.

    Jan Velterop

  3. Oops, my bad, sorry. I read right over the part where you were talking about OA journals. I was talking about NIH mandate compatibility -- an entirely different question.

    I think you're right in that most of the high-profile OA journals probably do charge fees.

  4. That's why the process is known as 'submission' and not as 'donation'. Besides, if all this 'giving away' is a bad thing, why would scientists continue to do it? They may be many things, but they're not stupid.

    Inertia, of course. The internet has fundamentally changed the economics of publishing, but change takes time to set in on many levels.

    In the time of paper journals, the marginal costs of paper, transport etc made the "toll access" unavoidable.

    In the time of internet toll access is avoidable. And only people who profit directly from toll access can see the reason in it.