Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Footing the Bill

Should you need any further evidence that the American democracy is in essence a lobbyocracy, the anti-open-access bill of congressman John Conyers provides it. Of course it isn’t called the ‘Anti Open Access Bill’, but the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act”. But then, this is the way of the world these days: euphemania.

The Americans are not alone in living in a lobbyocracy, where powerful special interests rule the roost. In other countries the people do as well. Take Australia. But Australians don’t seem to do euphemisms. They call a spade a shovel, and they have a web site to address these matters, unambiguously called lobbyocracy.org, exposing money flows in politics. (By the way, lobbyocracy.info and lobbyocracy.us are still available today, March 3rd 2009, should anyone want to do the same in the US.)

It is amazing how misguided the reasoning is of Conyers' bill (Peter Suber does a sterling job exposing the fallacies in his Newsletter). "Fair copyright in research works", huh? For a scientist, fair copyright is a notion used to ensure attributed plagiarism, otherwise known as ‘citation’. It is one of the most important things about copyright. No, it is the most important thing about copyright. For a researcher.

For publishers it’s different. For them, copyright, or rather, the transfer of copyright, is a way of payment for the services they render. Though they call themselves publishers, these services are hardly to be called publishing any longer (in the sense of ‘making public’). They are procedural services resulting in the labelling of an article as ‘peer-reviewed and accepted by’ a given journal. The act of publishing is on the web these days, and anyone can do it. This is, of course, precisely the problem. The publishers’ business models are based on the idea that it is they who are publishing. They did, but that’s the past, when print was the only means of dissemination, of making public.

That said, the 'publishers' do fulfill a role that is needed in science. Researchers are required to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Essential for survival in the ego-system. ‘Publish or Perish’, remember? Of course, they also need to read, although the imperative isn’t quite there. No such thing as ‘Read or Rot’, after all. But to publish is the key to any career as a scientist at all. This fact should inform the business models: he who has the most interest pays.

Back to copyright. For publishers who think they publish, the transfer of copyright is just a way in which the author pays for the publishers’ services. If the value of that copyright is eroded – or in the view of some publishers even nullified – by funders’ mandates and embargoes, they have a problem. The most straightforward way out of that is of course substituting a monetary charge for the transfer of copyright. This is what the open access publishers have understood. The so-called ‘gold’ open access model.

So what should traditional publishers do? (I’m assuming that an egregious bill such as Conyers’ will fail.) Should they refuse articles that come with open access mandates attached? After all, they do not come with the required ‘payment’ of full copyright transfer. And embargoes are problematic (although the argument that articles have appreciable economic value after the typical embargo period of 12 months is rather weak, to say the least, seeing that almost all of the revenues of a publisher are realised in advance, as the subscription and licensing model demands). Refusing is hardly possible if they want to stay in business at all, since the authors are obliged by their funders to withhold transfer of copyright for anything other than temporary (a period of generally a year) and have no choice. Here, too, open access publishers have the advantage. After all, they simply do refuse articles that come without payment. With some discretionary exceptions, their policy could be expressed with the slogan “Pay, or just go away!”

But one thing I rarely see or hear. That is the notion that mandates with embargoes are a threat to ‘gold’ open access publishers as well. Especially the mandates with short embargoes, of, say, six months. What if researchers can wait that long to see most articles? And authors to publish their articles? Neither on the side of the reader or the writer would there be an incentive to pay for the necessary service that publishers do provide, be it in the form of transfer of copyright or plain money.

Which brings me to my final point. Payment for ‘gold’ open access publishing the way it is done now is also problematic. The reason is that payment for the services of a publisher is fully loaded on the published articles (and the same is true for ‘toll-access’ publishing as well, of course). And yet, much of the work is related to articles that do not come through the peer-review process and are rejected. A truly fair system would charge a submission fee, for which the publisher would organise the peer-review process. Like a driver’s test. You don’t just pay when you’ve passed and get your driver’s licence. You pay every time you take the test. It would probably also mean alleviation of the peer-review burden, since submissions would be carefully pitched to the journal of the appropriate level for the article, and not be allowed to cascade down the journal hierarchy.

Could that be a bill to put before Congress? Requiring that all scientific research is published with open access and that the only charges scientific journals can make are submission charges?

Jan Velterop

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