Persistence Is The Key
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It Gets Lonely Out Here

Part of the reason for my insistence on maintaining an independent and iconoclastic stance in the open access debate is that I find much of the rhetoric of those on "my" side of the issue to be so very unhelpful and offensive.  Peter Suber has collected some reactions to the anti-FRPAA letter that came out last week, and the example from Jonathan Eisen is particularly depressing.

I suppose that for Eisen the issues are so obvious and clear-cut that he simply can't come to any conclusion other than that those who oppose his positions must be acting out of ignorant, venal, dishonest motives.  He's long past the point of positive debate -- you're either with us, or you're agin' us.  One of the good guys, or one of the evildoers.  Great.

After slamming the letter as being full of falsehoods, and the arguments as being "ridiculous" and "absurd", Eisen goes on to say, "This collection of provosts and deans clearly do not care about accuracy or the truth."  [UPDATE:  Shortly after posting this, I was impressed and pleased to get a brief email from Eisen in which he agreed that his tone was "over the top".  He said that he had changed the tone of his post, and I see that he has indeed done that].  In his listing of the nefarious relationships of the signatories, he mentions that Robert R. Rich is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Immunology.  He is also VP and Dean of Medicine at my university.

As it happens, I ran into Bob late Thursday morning when we were both on our way to the monthly lunch that our president hosts for the deans.    I mentioned the letter and he told me that it would be going out later that day.  We chatted a bit on the elevator about the complexities of the issues.   The topic came up during the lunch and there was a bit of lively discussion.  There was some good natured teasing of each other about being on the wrong sides of the issue. 

We've talked about all of this on several occasions, and I've noticed that Bob always frames his discussion by saying that he supports exploring new economic models for publishing (for example, he's had positive things to say about PLoS and the quality of their journals, though he's not yet convinced about their long term viability); what he seems to object to the most in FRPAA is what he perceives as a federal mandate to change the economic model without sufficient attention given to how the professional societies are going to manage the transition.  He and I may disagree on the merits and consequences of the legislation, but it is clear that his position is far from a kneejerk, anti-open access, anti-change point of view.   It comes from a thoughtful, considered concern over the possible unintended consequences that a rapid shift to open access could cause.  I've never heard him say so, but I'd guess that after a long and distinguished career dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge through support for education and research, it must rankle a bit to have what he considers to be a principled stand on a very important issue so cavalierly dismissed.

I bring this up only to make the point that on many of our campuses the issue is far more complex than "us against the publishers".  As I've said many times before, we need to find the places where we can establish alliances with the societies and come up with strategies to promote the issues that we agree on, and not let the disagreements divide us. 

So let me make a concrete proposal:  The Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) and the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB) should establish a one-year commission to investigate the alternatives, options, and implications for removing subscription revenue from the funding streams of society-published scientific journals.  The commission should include no more than ten individuals, half chosen by the executive body of each organization.  The organizations should provide sufficient funding for four in-person meetings during the course of the year, along with some funding for staff support (data-gathering, coordinating logistics, etc.).  Results should be presented at the 2008 AAMC meeting (as well as other appropriate venues).

The commission should be charged with identifying all possible alternate funding streams and constructing scenarios that would explore how likely the generation of such fundings streams could be.  FRPAA should be off the table, since the lines in the sand have already been clearly drawn.  The ultimate goal of the commission should be to identify, as concretely as possible, the real implications of removing subscription revenue so that we can have constructive debate on the cost/benefits involved in making radical changes to the current system. 

Let me be clear:  I firmly believe that funding scholarly communication via subscription revenue is an anachronism and that the societal benefits of changing the systems are worth pushing this as far we can.  But I also believe that the scientific societies play a critical role in the advancement of knowledge and that there is an equally important societal benefit in making sure that they remain viable as we go through this transition.   I assume that the leaders of those societies and those journals are at least as principled and honest as those flying the open access flag, and I think their concerns need to be treated seriously.   The concerns reflected in the anti-FRPAA letter can be fully addressed, but they are substantive issues that represent real risks and challenges. 

Finally, I believe that the open access partisans, along with many of my librarian colleagues, have made a serious tactical mistake in placing ourselves in such unyielding opposition to the scientific societies.   Those societies that have maintained their publishing programs as low-cost independent entities should be applauded by librarians, even when we disagree on the open access issues.  The day that Marty Frank sells the APS publishing program to Elsevier because he doesn't think he can successfully keep it alive on its own anymore is a day when we all lose.

Comments

Marcus

A few years ago I was in the "righteous" camp about open access. The argument seemed so compellingly moral and just, the counter-argument so venally self-interested.

Now I see that it is much more complex--Especially with society publishers, but even with the big bad commercial folks who feel they are an essential part of the scholarly communications system. CrossRef, for example, is a wonderful innovation spearheaded by the commercial sector.

Perhaps the pitched rhetoric on this issue reflects the coarse rhetoric that surrounds all political issues. We think we must shout to be heard at all. I don't know. But I do appreciate Scott's iconoclastic stance in the face of the crowd.

With that said, I personally think the time for studies has passed, no matter how valuable the proposed AAHSL/FASEB study would be. The study would probably improve relations between librarians and society publishers, and that may be enough reason to do it. But the only way to know the effect of FRPAA, which I support, is for it to pass and see what happens. This may seem precipitous, but remember that FRPAA itself is a more modest version of Martin Sabo's proposed "Public Access to Science Act" in 2003. We have been talking about how to increase access to government-funded research for years. More studies, whatever their motivations, will not resolve this debate.

T Scott

As I noted in my proposal, I don't see the point in debating FRPAA. What I do think is worth investigating is the actual impact of removing subscription revenue from the funding streams of scholarly publication. The publishers say it would destroy the societies; the open access advocates seem to say either that it won't have any negative impact or that if it does, them's the breaks. Which is it? The societies certainly have an interest in maintaining their viability. I think librarians do as well.

Bill Hooker

> I also believe that the scientific
> societies play a critical role in the
> advancement of knowledge

I'd like to hear more about how you think this works. My own initial reaction is that we (the scientific and the broader communities both) can well do without whichever societies do not survive any downturn in their revenues. After all, "societies that have maintained their publishing programs as low-cost independent entities" will presumably not be losing a financial lifeline.

T Scott

Actually, the specific society I had in mind when I was referring to "low-cost independent entities" was the American Physiological Society. Although their individual titles are low-cost, the publishing program as a whole is such a major portion of their overall activity, that removing subscription revenue would have a very significant impact on their ability to function. What I'm interested in is getting past carrying on the discussion via press releases and competing letters, and trying to look more sytematically at what the real options for the professional societies are, and what the implications of those different options might be.

Marcus

Sorry Scott--You did take FRPAA off the table.

But if it passes and President Bush signs it (I have no idea how likely that is), FRPAA's implementation would be a real-time test of whether it would destroy societies or not. I think (maybe hope) this is not the case, but we won't know for sure until the issue is forced.

T Scott

FRPAA is just one small piece of the open access discussion. I'm trying to get at the broader issue: The goal of open access is to take subscription fees out of the equation altogther. Peter Suber continually points out that only a small number of OA journals charge author fees. So what are the other options that societies might avail themselves of, and how practical are they? FRPAA passage, in and of itself, won't answer those questions.

Marcus

Sorry again--After posting, and walking to grab lunch, I realized that I am confusing several things.

FRPAA, of course, refers to government-funded research. So its pssage would be a "natural experiment" regarding government materials, but not address the larger issues that Scott is concerned with.

So a large study to get at the bigger picture would be valuable, like the proposed AAHSL/FASEB study. I support this study, but feel that no study--no matter how well-done--will resolve this debate. We will need many natural experiments to see whether societies or OA advocates are correct.

MarkD

What a nightmare I have had registering an account. Apparently I opened an account some time ago (and forgot both my username and password).
A word of advice for everyone. Don’t ever do that. After days of trying to get info from Typepad I just gave up and tried to open a new account. Problem is, they will only allow you one account per email address. I had to invent a new email address before I gained access.

Now, for the wider and more important debate. Oh so many points to cover.

It really bugs me when librarians dismiss the ‘confusing’ case made by publishers regarding unedited articles in a government database. I believe it shows a lack of respect for the work and professionalism of publishers. I’ve been in this business a quarter century. I can assure you that the vast majority of manuscripts submitted are so poorly written that they could only but cause confusion. To have an unedited version in general circulation along side an edited (publishable) version could only add to that confusion. The majority of scientist are very poor writers. One of the main tasks of a publisher is to take these often poorly written undisciplined manuscripts and turn them into something people can read and understand.

As for Scott’s position regarding the finances of scholarly societies. Well indeed Scott does have a point. But so what? It is not the ultimate responsibility of scholarly publishing to finance scholarly societies. Scholarly publishing should have only one objective, advancing human knowledge. It has only been an accident of history that it has been this publishing process that has funded scholarly societies. In my view, this is a side issue when it comes to the funding model for scholarly publishing. This debate is not about scholarly societies, this debate is about the technology changing the environment. In economics when the terms of trade change there are winners and losers. In this new environment, it could very well be that the losers will be the scholarly societies. If scholarly societies still provide a valuable service to the community a new way to fund them will be found. If they do not, then they will simply cease to be.

The open access debate is something entirely different. I know many librarians argue the case based on access and freedom of information. But I have worked with librarians a long time now. The real issue is money. Will open access be a less expensive model then the current subscriber based model? Or in economic terms, will the price level drop to allow greater access? I think the answer to this question is still unknown. OA does nothing to lower the cost structure of publishing, it does lower the barriers to entry and increases competition. I would therefore suspect that it will indeed lower the price of scholarly publishing (which would be bad news for the societies – but that is their problem and not relevant to this debate). However, it is interesting that after several years of existence the OA movement has yet to have an impact on price inflation of scholarly titles. I would have thought that we would have seen some impact by this point. I am not sure what that means. As Marcus states, we can only through it out there and see what happens. But be prepared my friends, there are no guarantees when terms of trade change. There is no guarantee that libraries will be winners in this process. Let us see where the road goes and let us hope that the road does not lead to the Netherlands.

Dana Roth

It was only a few years ago that society publishers were able to achieve a balance between page charges and reasonable institutional subscription rates. This business model was very effectively destroyed by commercial publishers who waived page charges. The enticement of 'free' publication, for a growing number of authors, finally forced the major society publishers to follow suit and compensate by increasing institution subscription rates.

Currently, even without page charge revenue, both the American Chemical Society and American Physical Society, for example, continue to set institutional subscription rates at a fraction of the cost/page or cost/article for commercial journals published by Elsevier, Springer and Wiley.

Compare for example the 2005 cost/page for:

Inorganic Chemistry(ACS) $0.26
Inorganica Chim. Acta(Els) $1.88

Organic Letters(ACS) $0.65
Tetrahedron Letters(Els) $1.60

Biomacromolecules(ACS) $0.30
Biopolymers(Wiley) $3.70

And the 2004 cost/article for:

Phys. Rev.-B(APS) $1.33
Thin Solid Films(Els) $7.30
Phys. Status Solidi-B(Wiley-VCH) $8.64
Eur. Phys. J. - B(Springer) $11.42
J. Mech. Phys. Solids(Els) $28.42

These examples strongly suggest that the reason why "universities can't afford to keep all their subscriptions"(2) is the result of a disfunctional commercial journal business model and not the fault of learned society publishers.

Marcus

Just wanted to point out that Mary Waltham has undertaken a smaller-scale study of the type that Scott has proposed: http://www.marywaltham.com/Chapter12.pdf

Also, Raym Crow has recently proposed that society publishers form cooperatives to survive a transition to open access. Crow claims that this would allow societies to maintain their editorial independence, while wielding collective economic clout: http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_9/crow/index.html

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