Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Hooker on OA

In a comment on my last post, Bill Hooker makes the point that I mis-represented Stevan Harnad's position on peer review. I don't think I did, but for the avoidance of any doubt, I know that Stevan is a very strong supporter of peer review and so am I. In a way, that is precisely the problem. Stevan wants peer review, but not to pay for the process of formal publishing in peer-reviewed journals. That, he argues, should be done by librarians. I wouldn't dispute that, but according to him librarians should (or is it just will?) keep the subscription model going and in that way provide sustenance for the formal peer-reviewed journal system.

But why would librarians do that? If the articles published were freely available from elsewhere - institutional repositories - buying what looks like access to the formal peer-reviewed journals, but what is a donation to support them seems a rather convoluted idea.

Would it really not be better to sustain the system and secure OA by directly paying for the publishing services rendered rather than via subscriptions to access that can be had for free elsewhere anyway?

Bill Hooker also makes the point that "... it could conceivably become attractive for researchers - perhaps through the NIH, or professional societies, for instance - to co-ordinate the review process themselves, construct a robust search architecture that encompasses the vast majority of institutional repositories and thumb their noses once and for all at the STM publishing industry." Become publishers, in short. He is absolutely right.

Three comments:

1. Yes please. History is littered with groups of researchers that have organised themselves to do just that. Mostly in the form of a scholarly society expressly established for the purpose. And subsequently they have become publishers and joined the STM publishing industry, or outsourced the publishing of their journals to independent publishers.

2. If anybody has problems with the harnadian solution, it's scholarly societies that publish journals.

3. It is just possible that there may be reasons why researchers are researchers and publishers publishers. Everbody can sow the seed to grow the wheat to grind the flower to bake the bread. Who, after all, needs farmers, millers and bakers?

Jan Velterop

(Bill Hooker has followed up on his blog 'Open Reading Frame')

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An 'Alms Race'?

In a posting entitled Mandating OA via Paid Publisher-Archiving (PPA) versus Author Self-Archiving (ASA), Stevan Harnad states "If research institutions and funders have the spare cash to pay whatever publishers ask today for PPA without having to take it away from research allotments, then the outcome (100% OA) is welcome and optimal for all."

I'll comment on PPA in a moment, but let's first look at this extraordinary statement. It reduces science publishing entirely to an 'alms race'. Publishers stretching out their hands in the hope that some benevolent librarian or funder will throw in a few coins, thus enabling the publishers to go on publishing. It beggars belief, if this expression was ever appropriate to use. What a way to sustain the formal peer-reviewed journal literature! The formal peer-reviewed journal literature is clearly worth very little. In his view.

Those with a 'harnadian' inclination should really not bother publishers at all with their articles. They should just 'archive' (read 'publish') them in some repository and move on. Shame the articles can't be labelled as having been published in a peer-reviewed journal, which would make them more valuable and be noticed and taken seriously, but hey, everybody can see them and the publishers just haven't been able to beg enough cash to publish them.

For those who do think that there is something of value in having a system of journals in which the peer-reviewed scientific literature is formally published, it is probably worth looking for more robust ways of economically sustaining them than just scrambling for alms.

Subscriptions, on the whole, currently sustain the journal system. But they have a downside. They do not, by definition, provide open access. So that's why new publishing models have emerged that do.

Unfortunately, Stevan derisorily calls these new publishing models PPA, for 'Paid Publisher-Archiving'. As if 'archiving' is what publishers do. Nobody pays a publisher for archiving and no publisher asks for payment for archiving. Publishers ask for payment for having an article peer-reviewed and formally published in a reputable journal. By having an article peer-reviewed and formally published in a reputable journal, it becomes worth a lot more than if it were just self-published. Worth a lot more to the author (or would some informally published article be seen in the same light by your tenure committee as one that's published in a journal with an impact factor?), worth a lot more to the reader (or would a citation to some informally published article be taken as seriously as one that's published in a journal with an impact factor?), worth a lot more to the funder, worth a lot more to science, and worth a lot more to society at large. If that were not the case, why should authors want to publish in journals? Why should funders and institutions expect (read: require) them to? Why should fellow scientists be keen to know where an article is published? Because there is no value in the formal peer-reviewed journal publishing system?

If there is value in the system, however, it needs to be properly sustained. Not with alms.

Jan Velterop

Friday, June 23, 2006

On the road

To Sally Morris's post on the SOAF list saying that she has "difficulty envisaging how the 'no-fee' OA model, dependent on (conscious or not) institutional or other subsidy, could possibly scale", Matt Cockerill responded:

"I think a reasonable analogy here would be to ask: can a road system scale without charging tolls? I think it is clear that road systems can scale without tolls. But on the other hand, tolls can certainly play a role, and play a bigger role in some countries than others. Non-toll roads can't be written off simply as 'unsustainable'. No one is arguing that building and maintaining roads doesn't have costs - just that there is more than one way in which they can be funded, and some forms of funding may have practical/convenience benefits (no one wants to have to pay 10 different tolls just to get to the supermarket)." End of quote.

We could take this road analogy further. Roads are not paid for by tolls at every turn, as that would disrupt the flow of traffic (though the technology to introduce just that via satellite tracking is advancing fast). So tolls are only used for 'premium' roads (and tunnels, bridges, et cetera). Instead, the vast majority of the road infrastructure is usually paid for by state subsidies, which in turn, we must assume, are funded by road taxes and fuel excise taxes. These excise taxes are interesting, because it means that there is already an element of 'user pays', as more road usage means more fuel consumption means more excise tax paid. But that user-related charge is just part of the road payment structure. Every potential road user also pays via road tax, levied on the owners of cars whether they use them or not. They pay for access.

Would something like that work in science publishing? And would it be desirable?

To a degree, and in a way, the road tax simile is already there. Institutions pay for subscriptions for potential users. It's a 'just-in-case' provision. They pay for access, not usage. It is often said that payment for usage would be fairer. But we have to be very clear as to what usage and who the user actually is. It's certainly not just the reader. It's definitely also the author, who uses publication in a journal to give his article the formal status he needs for career advancement and impact. And it's also the institution itself, depending for recognition and reputation on the formal publication record of its research population.

So it would be fair were they all to pay their share. Practically all of the money streams involved would come together on an institutional level. The purse is filled with overhead charges on research grants, and for the purpose of sustaining scientific journal literature the funds could be disbursed partially via the library (subscriptions, i.e. reader-usage charges) and partially via the authors (article processing charges, i.e. author-usage charges). But one might want to be pragmatic here. Disbursement via library subscriptions inherently limits access to the journal literature, because that is the basis on which the whole concept of subscriptions is built. Disbursement via article processing charges makes open access economically feasible. Could the reader-side charge and the author-side charge perhaps be rolled up into a single charge, on an institutional level?

Could that be a way forward? Would it be possible to come up with a charge that reflects the total usage of a journal, by its readers as well as its authors, in a given institute? A way to sustain the formal peer-reviewed journal literature that balances the need to publish (publish or perish) with the need to have access (read or rot)? Or would it be a road to nowhere?

Jan Velterop

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