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The Caricature of Taypayer Access

I am avidly following the discussion about public access on the OSTP blog and I see this morning that of the 26 new comments that have come in overnight, 21 are from Harnad.  Sigh.  "Bless his heart," as we say in the South.  I applaud the folks at OSTP for trying to be as open and inclusive as possible, but is this really any way to have a reasoned discussion?  I would hate to have to be the person who's got to read through all of this stuff and try to figure out if it actually reflects any consensus of opinion.

Hardly anyone that I talk to disagrees with the general abstract principle that the public should have ready access to the results of federally funded research.  But that's not really what all the heat is about.  What SPARC and its legions claim is that the public should have free access to the peer reviewed literature that results from federally funded research.  This is quite a different thing, and SPARC has been extremely effective at papering over that critical distinction.

There's the expected amount of publisher bashing in the comments of course, best illustrated, perhaps, by Evans Boney's "overview of what happens in peer-reviewed research:"

1- SCIENTISTS spend weeks preparing a grant proposal and sometimes get a grant, likely paid for by citizens of the USA.
2- SCIENTISTS do the research.
3- SCIENTISTS submit a paper to their peers
4- these other SCIENTISTS review these papers and send back comments.
5- PUBLISHERS claim a copyright on the result of the SCIENTISTS work and make the money that should rightly belong to the people who did the research. This money comes from subscriptions paid by libraries which, at public universities, are ALSO paid for by citizens. PUBLISHERS add two extra costs to the public at large, and are entirely worthless and burdensome to today’s scientific structure.

What one would logically conclude if this were actually the case, is that scientists should quit sending their articles to established journals, and simply organize their own peer review mechanisms and post their papers on their own.  Problem solved. 

Alas, this description is an ignorant caricature, although one that passes for reality among far too many of my colleagues in libraryland.  Even on a very small scale (for example, my experience with the four slender issues a year of the JMLA) there is a tremendous amount of labor involved in getting something from manuscript to published article, and then in getting that to the attention of the people for whom it will be useful, labor that is completely unacknowledged in the silly simplification that Evans presents. 

The advocates for public access mandates implicitly recognize this, of course.   It is the post-peer review articles that they want made publicly available.  They'd like the final published paper, of course, but those damned copyright laws prevent them from just taking those -- so they'll settle for the final peer-reviewed manuscript, which, they claim, the publisher doesn't quite have the rights to yet (although the fact that the NIH policy requires that the written agreement between the publisher and the author allow Pubmed deposit indicates that maybe the publisher does have some kind of a claim after all... but we'll try to avoid going there...).  One gets a headache from trying to follow the tortured logic.  So much easier to just raise the banner of "taxpayer access!"

So I'm left with this conundrum:  if what the publisher provides is so valuable that no mandate urges making papers available that don't have the benefit of it, how do we justify taking that value (and diminishing the value to the publisher who provided it) without giving something in return?  Conversely, if what the publisher provides is of no value at all, why don't the mandates suggest that we simply bypass the publisher altogether?

(As a postscript, I feel compelled to add that I do believe that the public should have unfettered access to the peer-reviewed results of federally funded research.  Indeed, I think that all of the peer-reviewed scientific literature should be made freely available.  After all, one of the professional accomplishments of which I am most proud is having played a part in making the content of the JMLA freely available -- the first library journal that did so.  I just think that we need to develop policies that do a much better job of acknowledging and accounting for the contributions made by publishers.  I don't think that the taxpayer access argument, in the simplistic form in which it is usually stated, is intellectually honest.  Evans Boney may not know any better, but surely many of the others who make that same case do).


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