of the most effective soundbites in the public access debates around FRPAA is
that taxpayers ought to have ready, easy and immediate access to the results of
the research that they’ve paid for. Seems to be obviously true.
quickly gets muddy, however, because most people who follow the OA orthodoxy intend it
to mean that taxpayers ought to have ready, easy and immediate access to the
peer-reviewed articles reporting the results of that research. After all, the argument goes, they’ve already paid for it, and
the subscription system forces them to pay twice!
publishers object that what’s been paid for is the doing of the research, but
that taxpayers have not actually paid for the peer review and publication of
those articles, they are typically shouted down with the claim that since all
of the key elements of peer review and publication are either done for free or
are simple anyway, the publishers really don’t add any value and so have no claim to compensation.
yet, there doesn’t seem to be any outcry at the notion of paying PLoS (or any
other publication-fee based OA publisher) a considerable sum of (usually)
taxpayer money to perform those same tasks.
If it’s double-dipping to pay Wiley-Blackwell a subscription fee to get
access to the peer-reviewed published articles, why isn’t it double-dipping to
pay PLoS or Biomed Central? Aren’t we
still making the taxpayer pay twice?
is no criticism of PLoS – I’m just looking for some consistency in how we judge
these things. PLoS has proven that a
publication-fee based top notch journal can be successfully produced in certain
well-funded disciplines. And I’ve always
been persuaded by the logic that says that since peer-reviewed publication is just the final step of a research project, it ought to be funded in the same way that all the rest of the costs of the project are. That’s the
justification for using grant funds to pay the fee. And that explicitly makes the case that
whatever it is that the taxpayers have paid for in doing the research, they
have NOT paid for the peer review and publication.
this also points to the weirdly ambiguous way in which we think about peer review
and how it gets done and what its real value is. It’s not hard to find bloggers and commenters
who castigate publishers and repeat, ad nauseum, the refrain that publishers
add next to nothing because most editors and peer reviewers are volunteers and
who really needs that copyediting stuff anyway.
Do they feel the same way about the PLoS publication fee? After all, PLoS makes a big deal about their
vast network of peer reviewers – they have to rely on a tremendous amount of
expert volunteer labor to make PLoS One the largest STM journal in the world
(in terms of number of papers published).
And yet, the fact remains that even the $2,900/article fee that they
charge for the flagship journals isn’t sufficient for them to break even on
those journals alone. So what are they paying for?
same sort of sloppy thinking pervades discussions of the place of peer review
in the NIH Public Access Policy. On the
one hand, it’s apparent that peer review is tremendously valued – NIH doesn’t
want any papers deposited unless they’ve been peer reviewed. And the expectation is that it is the
publishers that perform that task. So
the Policy requires that publishers perform what is clearly considered to be an
essential service – but then says there isn’t any need to compensate the
publishers for that service, because it’s all done by volunteer labor anyway and
isn’t nearly the kind of value-add that the publishers claim it is.
have it both ways.
could have set up their own peer review mechanism. After all, if the labor is all volunteer, and
the publishers don’t really add anything of value to the process, why deal with
them at all? How hard can it be? Indeed, in the original
E-Biomed proposal that Varmus floated over a decade ago, he envisioned a peer
review mechanism at NIH that would enable investigators to send their papers directly,
without going through journals. By the
time E-Biomed had morphed into Pubmed Central, that idea had been dropped. But it could be revived.
we could decide that the public’s need for access to the results of the
research that they’ve paid for could be met by providing access to the progress
reports and final reports that grantees have to submit to the funding
agency. Would that be enough?
the proponents of open access clearly believe that it is not enough. They want public access to the peer reviewed results of
federally-funded research. And they want
that peer review to be facilitated by the publishers. And they grind their teeth over having to pay
a subscription fee to some publishers to fund that peer review
process, but they happily pay a publication fee to OA publishers.
the open access result that justifies paying the fee, not the fact that “taxpayers
have already paid for it”. If it’s not
legitimate to pay a subscription fee to a publisher in order for them to handle
peer review and publication, then it shouldn’t be legitimate to pay a
publication fee, if the argument is
that the taxpayers have already paid for it.
logical argument could be: In order to
provide public access to the peer reviewed results of federally-funded
research, taxpayers should pay an additional sum in order for those results to be
published open access. (Stuart Shieber’s “Equity
for Open Access Journal Publishing” is a quite elegant proposal along these
lines that should have gotten more attention and discussion than it did.) You could argue
that this is a more effective way of providing taxpayer funds for the peer
review & publication processes, because then all taxpayers have access,
rather than just those who can get through the subscription hurdles. As an added benefit, you’d be insuring that
the version that the public gets access to is the final, stewarded,
then you’d have to give up shouting indignantly that under the current system “the
taxpayer is forced to pay twice!” And what fun would that be?