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.