I was trying to figure out a theme to use for my comments at the panel discussion in Charleston on Friday. Anthony Watkinson had done a superb job of framing a series of questions for us to respond to during the session "Open Access - Beyond Declarations". But with only ten minutes of speaking time available, it wasn't going to be possible to address each of them as thoroughly as they deserved. We'd have to pick and choose.
Among other things, Anthony asked, Is the achievement of Open Access to (all) scholarly communication a moral imperative, or is it one where advantages and disadvantages have to be weighed and evidence adduced?
The open access moralism on the part of some of the partisans has been extremely damaging to the entire discussion, so I ended up characterizing myself as perhaps an Open Access Heretic, pointing out that, "Martin Luther continued to believe in Jesus. He just quit believing in the Pope." That's a fair metaphor for the evolution of my views.
When one takes the strong moralistic approach, the open access all or nothing approach, and treats it as if it is the most important issue in scholarly publishing, then one is essentially absolved from the difficult consideration of social costs. If one feels that the social benefits of open access are clearly and completely overwhelming, then one is compelled to push for whatever solutions might point in that direction and let the chips fall where they may. But to righteously ignore the fact that some of those chips may fall very heavily indeed is irresponsible.
The result of this has been to create a climate of strong distrust among the various stakeholders and to lead both sides to make tenuous and twisted arguments that may make good soundbites, but don't really hold up under close analysis. In the battle of the press releases, all sides present overreaching arguments, designed, finally, to score points, rather than to push the discussion forward seriously.
I tried to illustrate this with the "taxpayer rights" argument. In a mom and apple pie kind of way, the statement that taxpayers should have immediate access to the results of federally funded research is trivially true. But this could easily be met by having scientists write up the results of their work and post it to publicly available websites. This, however, is clearly not what those who are making the argument would be satisfied with -- they still want the benefits of the peer review and editing processes that are part of the publication system and that are not, under the traditional system, paid for by the taxpayers. It is the subscription system that currently pays for those added benefits. So in order to include them, we need to shift the funding streams so that the taxpayers are paying for those benefits as well. Indeed, this is what the move towards having funders pay for publication costs is all about, and that approach seems perfectly reasonable and logical to me. It is not, however, without social costs, and the blithe response on the part of the advocates, who dismiss the concern about costs by saying it is such a tiny portion, maybe 2% or so, of overall NIH funding, is simply not sufficient. At a time when the NIH budget is flattening and competition for grants is becoming tighter and tighter (at present, NIH is funding just under 20% of approved applications), and promising young scientists are leaving academic careers because they're not able to get that all important first grant, shifting even 2% of the budget toward publication is not a trivial matter. Open access advocates need to do a much better job of making a compelling and detailed case for why the benefit is worth the cost.
The taxpayer rights argument is the soundbite hook on which FRPAA hangs as well, and it is a soundbite that plays well with members of congress and in the press. But, of course, FRPAA itself is a compromise and doesn't provide any more immediate access than the Highwire publishers do independently. "Libraries aren't going to cancel subscriptions if there is an embargo," say the partisans. Since this seems so obvious to them, they accuse the publishers who are opposed to FRPAA of bad faith for claiming that they are concerned about the survivability of their organizations. But since the people who are claiming that FRPAA doesn't threaten subscriptions are the same people who are on record as taking the moralistic view that everything ought to be immediately open, can one really blame the publishers for being convinced that FRPAA is just one step along the way, and that if they give in to this "compromise" it will simply encourage the partisans to continue to push for complete and immediate access?
Open access moralism has poisoned the debate, generated tremendous distrust, pushed people (most of whom I believe are essentially well meaning) into making tendentious and unsupportable arguments (on both sides), and made it far more difficult to build the kinds of alliances that might actually enable us to develop a social benefit calculus that could lead to positive changes that don't carry the burden of unintended negative consequences.
By the time I got to the speakers' platform, I was fairly convinced that I was going to seriously annoy everyone in the room. So I was somewhat surprised, and deeply gratified, by the number of positive comments I got from people immediately afterwards and throughout the rest of the day. Perhaps there are indeed an increasing number of people who are trying to find a useful middle ground. (Which is not to say that I didn't annoy plenty of members of the audience -- I'd've felt a failure if that had been the case).
I hope that we've reached a point where we can do some bridge building among the various stakeholders and do the hard work of seriously analyzing the social costs & benefits of various open or enhanced access approaches. A much stronger and richer scholarly communication system is within reach, with greatly expanded opportunities for access and synthesis, but it will require careful work among all of the stakeholders to bring it to fruition. The battle of the press releases isn't going to get us there.