Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Access matters?

A question mark? Strange perhaps, to put a question mark in the title. When I posed the question at the recent RIN/DTI/RCUK scholarly journal workshop in London, a possibly stranger thing was that the resounding 'yes' that I expected didn't come. Instead, all that Richard Charkin (of Macmillan, Nature), who chaired the meeting, could come up with was "You've got us [the panel] stumped."

That being so, it is still a valid question. If we don't understand to whom access matters and why, we are not likely to achieve much. I can see two levels on which the question applies: one practical and one principle.

On a practical level, self-evidently, access matters to users. No access, no users, after all. But does it matter to authors, librarians, publishers, funders? If so, why? If not, why not? The question is also important. It is not users who are in a position to drive OA. Authors, librarians, funders, and perhaps publishers are.

Users find access important. Do authors, too? Although they are also users and thus part of the user community, I'm not sure. They should find it important, given that exposure of their articles is a prerequisite for being cited, which is the 'currency' that 'buys' them their future career and funding prospects. Various studies demonstrate that open access (i.e. increased - even vastly increased - access) enhances this exposure and results in increased citations. But do they care? Do they even think about access to their articles? It wouldn't be the first time that people react differently depending on the hat they're wearing at the minute. Some authors clearly do care, but it does appear to be a small minority growing only ever so slowly. Could it be that access and citations to their articles are being seen as a given, an environmental factor that's just there, like the weather, and just as impossible to influence? Or are the enhanced exposure and increased citation levels of OA regarded as no more than 'promise-ware', delayed gratification at best, in the 'am I bovvered?' category?

And librarians? I'm not sure they all find it important, either. The overriding concern that I hear seems to be about their budgets, not about access. In fact, I've even heard the argument that "less usage should mean lower bills." (Without the corollary, of course, that in such a model, increased usage would justify increased bills.) If one wants to go there, usage should logically be discouraged. Hardly the direction open access advocates will have in mind.

What about funders? They should have the strongest incentives and face the lowest hurdles. They spend money on research for the benefit of progress of scientific insight and, subsequently, of society as a whole. The widest possible access to the results of research they have funded, naturally matters to them. They don't even have to worry about cost. They pay for the traditional model of publishing, via the institutional overheads that are taken off every research grant, and earmarking a portion of those overheads for the purpose of providing open access to the peer-reviewed and formally published articles resulting from research they fund seems a no-brainer. Even 'prisoner-dilemmatoid' issues to do with a redistribution of costs that individual institutions worry about, shouldn't present a big problem for them, detached as they usually are from any given institution. They can afford the 'helicopter-view' – or if they prefer hot air over noise, the hot-air-balloon-view.

Where do publishers stand in this? There is a strand in OA-land that holds that the provision of open access has nothing to do with publishers: the self-archiving strand. They are right in some ways. Researchers can of course publish and self-archive to their hearts' content when it concerns so-called pre-prints (which doesn't mean pre-prints at all, but more something like pre-formal-publications). As soon as they involve publishers, by submitting their article for peer-review and formal publication – in order to make the article worth something for their careers and future funding prospects, for instance – the publishers are, well, involved. In a 'publish-or-perish' environment, this involvement is the difference between published and not published. Even though a 'pre-print' is published as soon as it is posted in a repository, in usual academic parlance – in the eyes of tenure committees, for instance – 'published' means 'formally published in a peer-reviewed journal'. The idea that publishers aren't involved at that stage, and therefore no party to the discussion, is nonsense.

Open access through self-archiving presents a dilemma for publishers. They fear for erosion of subscriptions. One of the self-archivers' responses usually is that there clearly isn't any issue because the vast majority of publishers allow self-archiving of the 'post-print' (another one of those strange words). They seem to be right, because indeed, most publishers do. They feel they ought to, as a gesture towards authors. But the way they usually phrase it – something like "authors are allowed to post the published article on their personal home page" – betrays that it is not exactly their intention to provide open access to the formally published literature in this way. The fact that a 'personal home page' or a public server makes no difference in a web environment is beside the point. They phrase it the way they do in order to try and keep a modicum of control. Because control is part and parcel of a subscription model.

Most open access advocates (moi incluis – mea culpa) have initially counted on authors to want open access. Elaborate arguments, some stronger than others, but clearly none of them 'killer-arguments', have been developed to present the benefits of open access to authors. From the hitherto slow and low uptake, it seems that most publishers, betting on the fact that authors probably can't be bothered, may have been right, at least so far. That's why the focus of open accessors is now on mandates.

Mandates express the funders' interest and may indeed accelerate the process. Ironically, to publishers, access only matters in a subscription model. In a 'payment for publishing services' model, access is irrelevant for income and can therefore be completely open. Publishers understand this and they are already offering more and more hybrid models, although until now few offer the open access choice for all their journal titles like Springer does, but this can be expected to continue to grow. At one point some will be in a position to make their journals OA-only, which entails being able to reject any articles that do not come with payment for the service of open access formal publication, much like OA-born journals like the PLoS and BMC ones do. Publishers have to concentrate on getting paid for the actual services they render. In the subscription model they get paid with copyright or exclusive distribution rights that authors transfer to them. In the article processing fee model they get paid with plain cash. Provision of access is becoming a very minor aspect in such a service model, as anybody can take the articles and run with them. Open access publishers differ from traditional publishers not because they 'provide' open access – what both provide is formal publication. They differ in that they do not rely on controlling access to secure their income.

On a principle level, access matters because knowledge generated with public funds is meant to be public. It certainly is by public funders. Why else would they spend the money on research if not for the common good? And isn’t the common good best served by the maximum possible access to the results and interpretations of that research? The access provided in the traditional subscription system is just not satisfactory, because it doesn’t ensure that anyone has it. The natural access limitations that come with subscriptions are a vestige of the print-on-paper past. Now that the means exist to achieve maximum access – the internet – it becomes an imperative. If a common disease hitherto could be kept in check by lifelong taking of medicines, that may have been a burden, but there was no alternative. If the same disease could now be completely, securely and quickly cured, and the average cost per patient of the cure would be the same as the average cost per patient of providing lifelong disease management, would we spend years discussing the price of the cure rather than go for it and deal with issues of cost later? Hard to imagine. And yet it seems that we are in precisely such a discussion with regard to open access.

We need the consensus that open access, in principle, is a good thing, and then focus our energies on finding ways to make it systemic and sustainable. Not on fudges.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ego and Economics

Richard Poynder has recently (November 20, 2006) published a well-written essay entitled 'Open Access: Beyond selfish interests' (you can download the pdf via his blog). Because it is so well-written – he is a journalist after all – one may not easily spot that some of his observations are presented as foregone conclusions, yet are not supported or warranted. I must point out at least two of these red herrings, as they seem rather fundamental to the line of thought that is the leitmotiv of the essay.

In the very last paragraph of the essay, Poynder talks about “incumbent publishers intent only on preserving their hegemony over scholarly communication.”

Preserving their hegemony?

Publishers hold no more hegemony over scholarly communication than bakers hold over making bread. Anybody can choose to bake their own bread. Any researcher can choose to communicate with their peers themselves, as indeed they often do. There is no hegemony for publishers to preserve. Researchers do not ‘have to give away’ their articles to publishers – they can “just plonk their articles onto the internet”, as intellectual property law professor Dirk Visser of Leyden University recently put it (in Dutch, but I trust he agrees with my translation). And if they do have to publish, it is not publishers who compel them. Publishers provide services that enable researchers to attach credibility to their articles, so that they can be used to further their career and future funding prospects. The model to pay for such services in a roundabout way, via subscriptions, is a relic of the pre-internet past and an impediment to open access. Unfortunately, publishers are just as much locked into that model as the other actors on the academic stage, though an increasing number of publishers are keen to move on and try to support the provision of their services in a way that makes structural open access – immediate and full open access at the point of publication – economically viable.

Which brings me to the other observation that is unjustifiably presented as a foregone conclusion in Poynder’s essay. Some five pages before the end, he writes
“If funders were to mandate OA publishing those prices [the article processing charges – APCs – that OA publishers currently levy] would be locked in. And if APCs were treated as "part and parcel" of research, as Velterop proposes, there would be no mechanism for regulating prices — since researchers would be running up a bill at someone else's expense.”
He supports his observation by a quote from Harnad: “[no organisation] would not be happy to become a subsidised oligopolist, guaranteed its asking price by the government. McDonald's could make the same offer to lower and phase out the payment for its hamburgers if the government simply agrees to pay for them up-front, so every citizen can have a Happy Meal." And one from Roth: “[if politicians mandated OA publishing it would lead to] funding agencies being required to pay publication charges based on publisher demands, rather than economic reality."


This presumes that researchers, since they would be ‘running up a bill at someone else’s expense’ would just pay anything. They are running up a bill at someone else’s expense (their funders’) when they buy reagents, mouse strains, glassware, other assorted laboratory necessities. Do they really pay the providers of these goods based on the providers’ demands, rather than economic reality? Not when they have the choice of providers, one would imagine. This is where Poynder, Harnad, Roth, and I’m afraid many others, go wrong. They forget – or ignore – that unlike for subscribers, for authors there is a real choice of journal in which they publish, or at least to which they submit their articles. Where the party who pays (even if with 'someone else's money') is the party with the choice, the laws of economic do function, copyright becomes irrelevant as an economic factor, and the fact that information is a peculiar economic commodity becomes inconsequential. In that system, the tradable commodity is ‘service’, not information, and is subject to conventional market forces.

Jan Velterop

Friday, November 17, 2006

Price & Value

A lot of the criticism of science publishers is often reserved for ‘commercial’ publishers (I prefer to call them 'independent'), and a lot of that criticism takes the form of ‘too expensive’. Everything is ‘too expensive’ if the value to the potential buyer of something he desires doesn’t justify the price. In a normal functional economic system, the potential buyer just doesn’t buy in that case, or buys something that can be regarded as a substitute for what he initially desired, elsewhere, at a lower price.

Academic journals with their subscription models are not functioning along those lines, as they are monopoloid, i.e. non-substitutable, non-rivalrous. The paying party doesn’t have the choice. A subscribing library can’t just cancel an expensive journal and buy a cheaper one instead, because what his patrons find in one, they will not find in the other and vice versa. That’s why the model should be ‘flipped’, from a ‘user-side’ payment, to an ‘author-side’ payment.

In contrast to users, authors do have the choice. They can, in almost all cases, decide to go to another journal with their paper. And if price becomes a factor for them or their backers, they can weigh that in their decisions. For them, journals are substitutable, rivalrous. Even at the highest levels: if Science and Nature were to offer paid-for open access, at different fees, authors could simply choose to go to the cheaper one (supposing their article is acceptable for publication). It’s easy to see that in such a system the fees will experience pressure to settle on a level that is regarded as value for money.

Not everybody gets this, unfortunately. Disappointingly, Walt Crawford, in his December 2006 Sights & Insights, says, on page 24,
Velterop wants to “flip the model” and makes the highly questionable claim that assured funding for high-priced author-pays publication would cause “real competition” and “put downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on efficiencies.” How so? Journals don’t follow standard economic models, because each one is a monopoly.

It looks as if he has firmly planted the notion in his mind that journals are monopolies, always have been monopolies, always will be monopolies, and that there’s nothing that will change that. And he completely misses the point of the claim I make, which is simply that changing to a standard economic model – which is what author-side payment for publication (i.e. payment on behalf of the party with a choice) entails – will offer us a chance to create a functional market environment and to converge the perceived value and the fee (the definition of a fair price). If that’s a ‘highly questionable’ claim, then most of market economics is.

Those who see open access simply as a way to pay less are free to do so, of course, but it makes open access a mere negotiating lever with publishers. Haggling about prices is a time-honoured practice in just about any walk of life. It has little to do with the principle of open access. It would seem that lower subscription prices than the current ones would be an acceptable outcome to them, even without open access.

The problem really is that for non-substitutable, non-rivalrous, material, the market for subscriptions is intrinsically dysfunctional. It may sometimes look as though high prices cause cancellations, but low-priced journals have suffered cancellations as well, and what’s more, there is no discernible pattern that reliably shows a distinction between higher priced and lower priced journals in that regard. Certainly there is no evidence that lowering subscription prices result in a higher take-up of the journals for which that has been tried, and without such higher take-up, there is no improvement of access. In a functional market one would expect such cause and effect.

Open access is more fundamental than about price. It is also more fundamental than increased usage figures or citation counts. It is about the notion that results of research carried out with public money are public goods. Doing the research costs money. Publishing the results is imperative, regardless of usage or citations. It’s public availability that counts. Like the minutes of important public meetings. They are validated and recorded; and only read again and quoted if and when necessary. That doesn’t make them any less valuable. Publishing the results is part of research itself. Therefore the cost of publishing is part of the cost of research.

Should the cost of publishing be scrutinized? Sure. In the same way as the cost of research is scrutinized. We, society at large, justify paying more for top researchers than for beginning ones; we justify putting more expensive equipment in one laboratory than in the next. We balance the price and the value we perceive to be getting. If we give ourselves a chance to come to fair prices for the services of publishing, then we have gained a lot.

The current subscription system doesn’t give us that chance. Nobody knows what a fair price is. We are, absurdly, measuring ‘cost per download’, ‘cost of citation’ and the like and believe we are measuring value. Has anybody ever approached, say, the proceedings of a parliamentary debate in that way? Even just as a thought experiment? What is 'usage' anyway? Scientific articles are important documents. The only thing that valuing them by their usage and citation does is to make the usage and citation potential of articles into criteria for publishing them, instead of their intrinsic scientific merit. Thus making a brilliant article that few understand seem pretty worthless. And – possibly worse – making a poor, but controversial, popular, and fashionable article seem the more valuable of the two. Surely, that can't be where we want to go.

Jan Velterop

Monday, November 06, 2006

Subsidy or not to be

Subsidise, subsidise - but don't let the real issues evade your eyes (free after Tom Lehrer).

Recently, early November 2006, a quick thread was spun on the AMSCI open access list about subsidising journals (though the title of the thread is 'What Can and Should Be Mandated').

I've looked in Wikipedia for a definition of subsidy: "...generally a monetary grant given by a government to lower the price faced by producers or consumers of a good, generally because it is considered to be in the public interest". Would this also cover situations in which governments are the ones that provide the funds for consumers - because it is in the public interest - to buy the goods or services in the first place? I think it does, and that this provision of funds in the first place is a form of subsidy.

Ergo, all journals are subsidised. Although, a lot of microsubsidies could perhaps be seen as constituting a 'market'. The money for journals comes, to a very large degree, from governments. If not directly, then indirectly, via the circuitous route of research and learning institutions with their librarian gatekeepers and content collectors. The subsidy is just misdirected. And ill-suited to what the intention is: serving the public interest.

Why is that so? Subsidising the consumer, in order to be able to buy scholarly journals, is accepting the premise that a journal's value is primarily in its content. It isn't. While that perhaps used to be so, it isn't any longer as a result of the internet. The content can be found elsewhere, and for free. In a preprint repository, for instance, or even in a postprint repository. The internet has made one of the classical functions of publishing - dissemination - exceedingly easy to do by anybody else as well, and particularly by the author. Journals are no longer needed for dissemination per se.

The function of a journal was always much wider, even when all its economic value was bound up with just dissemination. Journals organise the formal acceptance and embedding of the literature in the record. They keep the 'minutes of science' as I mentioned in an earlier post.

This is a very important function of journals, as I argued in the same earlier post. And that's the function that needs to be 'subsidised'. If the same money that's now sloshing around in the L-sphere (licence sphere) were used to enable peer-reviewed articles to be added to the free and open Noösphere (knowledge sphere) by paying for the service of formal publishing rather than for access, we would have so much more 'bang for the buck': open access.

Here's an illustration why formal publication is important: for the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has negotiated a licence with the Publishers' Licensing Society (PLS) to gain access to the formally published literature (only the "authoritative final version" will do; so they're not after the content, but after its label of authoritativeness, established by being published in formal, peer-reviewed journals), "only for the purpose of conducting the RAE." The licence is free of charge. Somewhat perverse, in my view: the system pretends to pay for access to the content per se, yet wants to have access to the real value of formally published literature for free. If HEFCE supported open access at source - the article processing charge model - then it would have free, open access to the material without any need for a licence and so would everyone else.

Jan Velterop