Friday, July 20, 2007

Of publishing and marketing

Recently, on Peter Murray-Rust's blog, Bill Hooker's blog, and quite a few others, the definition of 'Open Access' was discussed. In the spirit of open access and clarity we are told that "Open Access is not a marketing phrase and you are not free to use it as you see fit", "Free Advertising isn't Open Access in my book", and "Open Access cannot be used as marketing gimmick and the definition should always be clear to everyone."

It's interesting that attention should be drawn to advertising and marketing. It is advertising and marketing that most of publishing in journals is about. Researchers don't need journals if it is just to 'give away' their research to the world, if they just want to 'share' their knowledge. They can just post it on some well-read web site or deposit it in an open repository and, hey, the proverbial Bob's your uncle. But no, that ain't enough. They need to advertise their scientific prowess, their priority, to officialdom, in order to get tenure, status, future funding, et cetera, and they use formal publication in peer-reviewed journals for that.

Nothing wrong with that, but let's be straight. You wouldn't consider submitting your article to a journal that doesn't market and promote itself.
"Free Advertising isn't Open Access in my book."
No, it isn't in my book, either. Free advertising of your article is publishing it in a subscription journal, so that you don't have to pay for it, but librarians do, so it's free to you.
"Open Access is not a marketing phrase and you are not free to use it as you see fit."
Open access is just as much - or as little - a marketing phrase as 'subscription' is, in all the inherent ambiguity and variation of those terms. Or is there anybody out there who believes that the definition of Open Access is (can be) completely unique, unequivocal and impervious to interpretation? Well, some work is needed on the current definition(s),then. Even if it were enshrined in some statute book as the law, it would still be open to interpretation. Don't take it from me: ask any lawyer.

Do I think that improvements in labelling open access could be made? Of course I do. And they will be, in a process of trial and error, and rich discussion, perhaps rather like scientific insights get refined and mature. To claim that "the definition should always be clear to everyone" is naive.

Perhaps it should be clear, but it ain't. How do I, for instance, interpret the phrase "the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use" in the open access definition? That's a limitation of rights, correct? So that's reflected - though not perfectly - in the Creative Commons BY-NC licence. If there were a Creative Commons licence that specifically dealt with this 'right to make small numbers of printed copies for personal use', then we could perhaps use that one rather than the BY-NC licence with its to scientific publishing irrelevant elements. But to my knowledge, at the time of writing this, there isn't one (if there is, I'd be all too happy to be enlightened). On the other hand, if you look at the 'non-commercial' restriction in the BY-NC licence, you may be forgiven to wonder what the fuss is about:
"You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You [...] in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation. The exchange of the Work for other copyrighted works by means of digital file-sharing or otherwise shall not be considered to be intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation, provided there is no payment of any monetary compensation in connection with the exchange of copyrighted works."
Jan Velterop

Monday, July 16, 2007

Fly or flounder

If one looks at scientific information from an economic point of view, and considers supply and demand, it will probably look like this: In an area mainly driven by readers who clamour to see the research (a 'read-or-rot' area), subscriptions make sense; in an area mainly driven by the need to publish (a 'publish-or-perish' area, arguably the most common in science), article processing charges for open access publishing makes sense; and in an area mainly driven by political or other overarching societal concerns ('fly-or-flounder'?), direct subsidies make sense.

The question is, can one, or should one, look at scientific information in this way. The answer is, in my view at least, 'yes'.

Science research activity, including the publishing of research results, is clearly an economic activity, with supply and demand, so that would definitely argue for the 'yes' vote. But are the three scenarios mentioned above of equal importance? Scientific information is to a very large degree a 'product' for which supply and demand are overlapping, suppliers (authors) being 'demanders' (in their role as readers) - and vice versa. With regard to formally publishing scientific findings, the demands placed on the system by 'suppliers' are, in general, much stronger than the demands placed on it by readers. What I've often heard in research circles is that as a scientist, you can mostly get away with reading only a selection of relevant literature (the rest being of a confirmatory nature, so seeing the abstract is enough, or even just knowing that an article exists), or rather, you must, because there's an information overload in most disciplines and you wouldn't be able to read it all anyway. As an author, though, there's no escape: you have to publish.

Of the three scenarios mentioned, the last two are arguably the most important. Yet the overwhelming majority of the economic activity takes place in the framework of scenario 1. That's an 'issue' (euphemism for 'problem') and our challenge is to make the transition to scenarios 2 and 3 while keeping the crucial elements of the system of formal publishing intact and economically viable, especially peer-review.

Jan Velterop