The Magical Thinking of Professor Harnad

One watches with awe the relentlessness of the hedgehog mind.  Would that I were as certain of anything as Professor Harnad is of his vision of the open access future.  Surely one can be sympathetic to his frustration at those who bring up irrelevant issues or divergent points of view.  To his laser-like vision they are so obviously wrong.   Again and again (and again!) he tirelessly trots out his facts – that it is only fear that keeps academics from depositing articles into local repositories and so we must have mandates which will almost instantly (because academics love mandates) result in nearly 100% OA, at which point publishers will cease publishing and convert to peer review management organizations, funded by the windfall garnered by libraries who will cancel their now unnecessary journal subscriptions.

It will be a glorious day, akin to the day when the movie studios shut their doors once most households had television sets (or was it radio that went out of business?)  Or maybe it was the day that cable put the broadcast networks out to pasture.  I forget…

But no matter.  In the meantime, we must be vigilant and focused.  We must keep the evil subscription (“toll-access”) publishers in business (for the time being) and not so much as whisper the heresy that librarians might cancel journals prior to the day of the singularity.  Is it supposed to come as a surprise to them when we suddenly drop our subscriptions?  How much time will they need to re-tool to become peer review only organizations?  So many questions…

Although the metaphor is inexact, there’ve been many times over the past year that the line whispering in my head has been, “And the revolution eats its young…”  The Finch report tore the OA community asunder.  Where previously it had seemed that gold and green might coexist and one could be friendly with both, suddenly the camps became like the true fans of the Crimson Tide versus the Auburn Tigers.  Allegiance must be paid.  Professor Harnad leads the charge, castigating “Fools Gold” and hollering even more shrilly for mandates, mandates, mandates which are easy to implement and which the researchers desperately want in order to alleviate their fears and make those deposits that they are so eager to do.  It is inevitable and it is almost here.

In this taking of sides, Gold OA must be opposed at all costs, so former heroes of the movement, like PLoS or Biomed Central, conveniently drop off the radar screen.  Immediate open access to the version of record is now perceived as a danger, vastly inferior to scattered deposits of the author’s manuscript version.  The OA goal has been turned on its head.

One of the ironies for me in all of this is that I would actually love to see much of the future that Professor Harnad envisions come to pass.  Indeed, many years ago, at a meeting of librarians and publishers organized by Marty Frank and Mike Keller, I said that I could see a future in which an organization like APS acted strictly as a peer review organization, putting their stamp of approval on papers that could then be deposited in any of a variety of repositories.  Marty laughed (as he tends to at what he perceives as my more outlandish ideas).  I still think it’s a nifty concept.  But anyone who has studied diffusion of innovation theory and history knows that the path forward as outlined in the voluminous Harnadian corpus is a fantasy. 

In the real world, change happens in fits and starts, is messy and incomplete, results inevitably in a series of unintended consequences and is a matter of balancing pros and cons.  It is never as neat as Professor Harnad wants it to be.  For my part, I view the desirability of immediate open access to the permanent, curated version of record to be well worth the continued involvement of the commercial publishers.  I'm skeptical that the repository movement advances us very far.  But I'm not dogmatic about it.  

In a recent exchange, when asked by Jeroen Bosman what the reasons are for his speculations, he says, “Speculation, but grounded in the pragmatics, logic and evidence of what it actually going on today.”  In the magical thinking of Professor Harnad it is obvious and inevitable.  How frustrating it must be for him that so many of us fail to see it.



Not FASTR Enough

While the publishing industry continues to explore numerous avenues for providing full Open Access to the stewarded versions-of-record of the scientific literature, SPARC once again offers up the hope that the US Congress will save us from the evil paywalls.  Is  this really the best they can do?

Springer is now the largest commercial OA publisher in the world.  The publishers on the Highwire platform make over 2 million articles freely available within twelve months or less.  CrossRef is playing an increasingly important role in this space, most notably with the FundRef initiative.  NPG, AIP, and others are launching mega-journals built on the PLoS One model.  Wiley announced just today that they are moving two of their established journals to open access.  Even stodgy conservative Elsevier now publishes a couple dozen fully OA journals.

SPARC has changed the name of  their bill.  Yay!  Let's write our congresspeople!

There was a remarkable scene at the STM Annual Meeting in Frankfurt last October.  I was moderating the closing session, a discussion of the value of emerging models of scholarly publishing with Kent Anderson as the main speaker.  Always eager  to be provocative, Kent was being sharply critical of eLife, BioMed Central, PLoS One and the notion of open access in general (this will come as no surprise to readers of his pieces in the Scholarly Kitchen).  What resulted was significant pushback from many in the audience, who argued that not only were the various OA models financially viable, but that moving to OA was the  right thing  to do -- that it represented the values that had brought so many of  those people into publishing in the first place.  Imagine that -- 300 STM publishing executives in a conference room with a significant portion of them (and seasoned professionals at that) vociferously defending open access.

Alas.  I think I was the only librarian in the room.

The tide towards open access is inexorable.  Many in  the publishing industry recognize that and are actively engaged in making things happen.  Wouldn't it be nice if librarians were a part of that?  But SPARC, as the librarians' advocate for OA, would have us sit on our hands (well, one hand, I guess -- we're supposed  to use the other to write to Congress) and hope for a legislative solution.

The previous FRPAA versions of FASTR haven't even been able to get a decent congressional hearing.  It's easy enough for a congressperson to sign on as a co-sponsor, but  there doesn't really seem to be much legislative muscle behind it.  And even if it were, somehow, to get through Congress in the current session, think of  the time and money that will be wasted on building the infrastructure necessary for each agency to comply.  All for the sake of "freeing" manuscript versions of articles, many of which publishers are already making available.

I suppose you can't blame librarians too much.  If all they know about publishing is what they read in SPARC press releases it's natural to think that publishers are evil demons bent on hoarding knowledge to the detriment of civilization as we know it.  The slogans about publishers getting everything for free and making the taxpayers pay twice are compelling if you don't look at them too closely.

I'll agree with SPARC on one thing -- we've got no time to waste in moving the open access future forward.  Too bad that while publishing professionals of all stripes are working to make that happen librarians seem content to sit on the sidelines waving cardboard sabers.


What value do publishers bring to public access articles?

The complaint that publishers add little or no value to the scholarly publishing process is one of the most common soundbites used by the OA partisans.  And yet, if this were true, why would the NIH Public Access Policy or FRPAA be structured the way that they are?

Although the phrasing that is typically used is along the lines of "taxpayers fund the research so they are entitled to read the results of that research at no additional charge" that's not exactly what the mandates are actually after.  Several commentators have suggested that the public's entitlement could be met by making the research progress reports that are required by all funding agencies available.  Some agencies already have systems available to do that. 

As Phil Davis points out in The Scholarly Kitchen, recent studies show that fewer than half of NIH-funded clinical trials actually result in published articles within 30 months.  So wouldn't access to progress reports be a huge improvement over a focus on published articles?   Given the ratio of funded studies to published articles it is clear that neither the NIH Public Access Policy nor FRPAA are or could be very successful in achieving the goal of providing access to all the results of federally funded research.

But that's not actually what those policies are trying to achieve.   It's only after a publisher has accepted an article for publication that NIH or FRPAA is interested in getting a version of it.  Argue all you want about whether or not the publisher adds value, but these mandates are very explicit that there is something that publishers do that is absolutely essential.

It has something to do with peer review apparently.  Although again the partisans are quick to point out that the reviews are done for free and the decision is made by an editor who is getting, at best, a tiny honorarium, and that whatever it is that the publisher contributes, it can't be very much or be very costly.

So why do we need the publishers?  Why doesn't the NIH policy or FRPAA establish their own independent peer review process if peer review is so important, but so cheap?  Then the publishers couldn't complain that they were providing something of value for which they are not being compensated.

But I haven't seen anything like that suggested anywhere.  The NIH policy and FRPAA absolutely depend on publishers contributing something.  How can something of so little value be so absolutely essential?


We Can Do Better Than FRPAA

SPARC's greatest rhetorical achievement has been to establish the equivalence of support for FRPAA with support for Open Access.  If you're on the right side of the issue and believe that the public must have free access to at least the author's final version of peer reviewed published papers, then you must be in support of FRPAA.  If you question FRPAA then you must be in the pocket of the evil publishers, deviously trying to lock away the results of federally funded research from the deserving public.

But I'm troubled by FRPAA's willingness to make do with the author's final manuscript and with the scant lip service that it pays to interoperability, data-mining, and preservation.  I think its one size fits all approach doesn't reflect the actual diversity of approaches to the literature among disciplines, and that its unwillingness to engage in some level of compromise with the publishing community sets up an us/them framework that has already done considerable damage to the scholarly community and that makes enemies of people who, in fact, have much more aligned interests than is generally recognized.   Most worrisome of all, perhaps, the fact that FRPAA is presented as THE solution to public access gets in the way of productive discussion about how we might achieve a better path to open access.

The report from the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, now two years old, still reflects the complexity of issues pretty well, and I'm encouraged by the fact that OSTP's RFI process clearly reflects those concerns.   Although the report doesn't specify a particular policy approach it does outline pretty well the issues that ought to be balanced in the development of such policies.

There have been a variety of ideas floated over the years that are worth looking at in developing a policy approach that improves on FRPAA's flaws, in particular the linking proposal that was made by a coalition of 57 not-for-profit publishers to NIH back in 2005/6, as well as Stuart Shieber's 2009 paper "Equity for Open-Access Publishing".

Elements that might be incorporated into such policies would include requiring that grantees publish in OA journals (whether fully OA or hybrid), that metadata be submitted to granting agencies to link back to the Version of Record, that standards for data-mining and interoperability be developed across all of the federal granting agencies, and that publishers either adopt robust preservation/archiving strategies on their own, or participate in "trusted" endeavors (however those turn out to be defined).

Policies along these lines would privilege the Version of Record, eliminate the embargo period, and emphasize the development of standards for interoperability.  They would provide a mechanism to encourage subscription publishers to develop fully OA business models, while injecting a level of market competition that could help to hold publication fees down.

They would also bump up against some issues of academic freedom by limiting where scientists could choose to publish, they would result in providing subsidies to commercial publishers for moving to OA, and they would not necessarily result in government controlled repositories like PubMed Central. 

So there's still plenty to argue about in the details.    But now is the time to have those arguments.  With the publishing industry already experimenting in numerous ways with OA business models, with many publishers on record opposing RWA, while stopping short of endorsing FRPAA, and with the OSTP folks sifting through all of the comments in response to the RFI, now is the time to move past the limitations of FRPAA and try to engage fully with all of the stakeholders to achieve immediate open access to the Version of Record.  Why in the world would we want to spend the next year engaging in a legislative fight that, even if it was won, wouldn't get us close to that?


RWA/FRPAA -- SPARC misses an opportunity

Along with much of the rest of libraryland I've been watching with great interest the flurry that followed the introduction of the "Reinvigorate SPARC Act".  Filed shortly before Christmas, it wasn't until the exuberant AAP press release started making the rounds in early January that...

What?  Oh.... Right.  Sorry -- I meant the "Research Works Act".  I got the title confused with the effect.

I was both depressed and astonished when I saw the SSP press release.  Just at the point when the OSTP RFI on access to peer reviewed publications promised at least the possibility of taking the discussion a step forward and getting past the simplistic arguments we've suffered for the last few years, this poorly written piece of inflammatory legislation could have no possible effect but to inflame the partisans.

And, of course, the predictable is what happened -- blog hysteria.  An assault on Open Access! Trying to shut down PubMed Central!  Evil Publishers!  Enemies of science!

But... as one waded through the muck of hyperbole and righteous outrage, one could begin to discern some occasional glimmers of discussion of real issues.  The fact that the research community was more engaged is certainly a positive -- even if much of that engagement is simplistic and riddled with error.  Still, you could find people raising substantive issues:  What is the appropriate role of the government?  What value do publishers add?  Would research progress reports be sufficient to address the public's right to research results and if not, why not?

That many publishers, including many members of AAP, came out against RWA gave me hope.  On my better days, I began to believe that as bone-headed as RWA is, maybe its introduction would actually do some good.

And then came the re-introduction of FRPAA to make sure that doesn't happen.  Now, instead of discussing the real complexities of scholarly publishing, the real challenges and opportunities, we can have letter writing campaigns and sloganeering, pep rallies and resolutions and press releases.

And we can waste another year.

One might have hoped that SPARC would take advantage of the interest in these issues that the RWA has sparked among the research community, as well as the divisions it has revealed among members of the publisher community.  They could have tried to foster some discussion among those communities to see if we've learned anything from the last few years.  Maybe we could work together to craft new and better legislative proposals that would achieve open access in a way that resulted in greater buy-in from all stakeholders.

But instead of seizing the opportunity, SPARC apparently prefers to continue the adversarial combat that will have little effect other than shutting down creative discussion.  It's a shame.

There are alternatives.  The American Association of University Presses has issued a statement opposing both RWA and FRPAA and supporting the America COMPETES legislation that led to the recent OSTP RFI.  We have an opportunity to move forward.  Let's not blow it by getting bogged down in legislative trench warfare.



Sometimes you just need to talk....

It seemed as if the unstated subtext of most of the conferences & meetings I went to this spring was that the boundaries between publishers and librarians is getting increasingly porous.  Geoff Bilder made it explicit in his plenary session at the MLA meeting when he referred to a presentation that John Unsworth gave at the Society for Scholarly Publishing meeting several years ago titled, "Pubrarians and Liblishers: New Roles for Old Foes."   Increasingly, librarians are starting to move into the publishing space and publishers are worrying about things that used to be the exclusive domain of librarians.

Despite this, we're still too often talking past each other, or not talking at all.  We need more conversation.  Which is why one of the most enjoyable things I did was the SSP "Chat With A Librarian" roundtables.  Jean's done a good writeup of the event for the SSP website.  The room was packed and ninety minutes flew by.  We could easily have gone on longer.

Jean and I, along with Norm Frankel, will be using some of the feedback from that session to develop the Chicago Collaborative's "Libraries 101" modules, designed to present the broad array of library issues to people in publishing.  The evidence of the SSP session is that many people in publishing are very hungry for more information about how libraries really operate and what librarians really want.

Anything that can foster more conversation will help.  As those boundaries continue to become even more porous we're going to need the expertise of everybody involved in the scholarly communication chain more than ever.



Ask Questions

A couple of weeks from now (Friday, November 5th, at 9 in the morning, to be exact), I'll be hosting a conversation with Y.S. Chi and Kent Anderson at the Charleston Conference.  I've known each of them for some time, and they are among the most experienced, thoughtful, and inquisitive people in publishing. 

Y.S. is currently Vice-Chairman and CEO Science & Technology for Elsevier -- you know, that little outfit that produces ScienceDirect, Scopus, Embase, Engineering Village, etc.   Before Elsevier he held several president and CEO positions at Ingram Book Group and was CEO and President at Random house.

Kent is CEO & Publisher of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery.  He spent a decade with the New England Journal of Medicine, helping them move into the digital age, and before that ran periodicals for the American Academy of Pediatrics.  He's the editor-in-chief of The Scholarly Kitchen (which you ought to be reading daily).

These guys know a lot.  They spend most of their time trying to figure out where scholarly publishing is going.

I've told them I don't want prepared presentations.  We're going to hang out on the stage,  I'll ask them some questions to get things rolling, and then we'll turn it over to the audience. 

We're going to have fun.  What do you think I should ask them?


Hang Out With People in Publishing

A few days ago, I was harping on the need for librarians to spend more time hanging out with people in publishing, so it seems appropriate for me to point to the programme for the 2011 meeting of the Association of Subscription Agents, which will be held in London next February.  I've attended the meeting a couple of times as a speaker and have found it extremely worthwhile.   It's a small, relaxed meeting and as you can see from the list, they cover a broad range of topics.  These are people who are very concerned with figuring out where scholarly publishing is going, and what their various roles in it are, so the discussions can be very illuminating.  You get to engage in real conversation with people who have widely differing opinions about what needs to be done, but who all care passionately about getting it done right.   They even have a special rate for librarians!



Searching for common ground: public access and the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable

 As soon as I sent the draft of my editorial about the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable around to the other roundtable members for review, Fred began referring to it as my "how I spent my summer vacation" essay.  That's pretty accurate.  When Susan Starr, the editor of the Journal of the Medical Library Association, asked me last March if I'd be interested in writing an editorial for the October issue, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about.  The report itself is the important thing, and I didn't see any need to repeat the substance of it, but I thought it might be useful to describe my perceptions of how the Roundtable came about, and what I think it achieved.  I'm grateful to Susan for giving me the chance to do that.

At the most basic level, the goal of open access is to eliminate subscription barriers (there's much more to the various "flavors" of open access, of course, but that's the fundamental thing).  What I try to emphasize in the editorial is that across the broad spectrum of the scholarly communication community, there isn't any significant opposition to that goal.  But how we get there, and how we craft policy in such a way as to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative unintended consequences is very complex and requires carefully balancing among a number of competing priorities.  The Roundtable report attempts to describe that complexity and that balancing act in ways that we hope will be useful to policy makers.

Jim O'Donnell (another roundtable member) and I will be hosting a session on the report and its relationship to FRPAA at the Charleston Conference in a few weeks.   I'm hoping for a lively discussion.


Breaking Down the Mental Models

It hasn't been my geographic region for fifteen years, but every year I pay my own way to the MCMLA conference.  My history with the chapter is deep.  I go principally for the people, but every year I'm reminded what a great job they do with content.  Last year, the keynote was the amazing T.R. ReidThis year it kicked off with the tag team of Lorri Zipperer and Paul Uhlig.

 Lorri is well known for her work on patient safety, and this was the point of the presentation, as reflected in the title,  New Possibilities: The Catalytic Role of Librarians as Front Line Partners for Transforming Clinical Care.  But unlike other work I've come across over the years that discusses a more active clinical role for librarians, Lorri and Paul focused on the cultural barriers to this kind of collaboration, and emphasized the kinds of interactions that need to happen if it is to be successful.  I'd woken up that morning thinking about how I might respond to Marcus's comments to my previous post and it seemed to me that the challenges to effective librarian/physician interactions paralleled quite clearly those affecting librarians and publishers.

 They emphasized the ways in which we get trapped by our mental models.   This is not just librarians, of course; it affects all professions.  So we end up having warped views of those we interact with who are not part of our own tribe.  Lorri told the story of talking to someone not long out of library school and recommending that she read some of Atul Gawande's books.  The librarian responded, "I'd never read anything by a surgeon!"  Lorri told her she was in the wrong business.  An extreme example, perhaps, but reflective of how too many librarians think of physicians.

Paul put it succinctly:  "We are who we are because of the way we interact, who we talk with...  We create our realities in our mutual interactions."

So it is with librarians and publishers.  As librarians we create mental models of publishers that puts us in opposition to them.  Marcus says, "The traditional publishing model ... really should be at risk."  I scarcely know a person in publishing who doesn't agree with that -- but the tone of Marcus's comment reflects the notion, prevalent among librarians, that publishers are trying to defend and protect a traditional publishing model.  Surely it's the case that there are some who are trying to hang in there, hoping for retirement before it all collapses around them -- just as there are librarians who still think their job is to build & manage collections and worry about how to get people into the library.  But most of the people I talk with in publishing are trying just as vigorously as smart librarians to figure out how to transform their organizations so that they remain vibrant and fruitful in the digital age.

Marcus asks, "How can we credibly align the interests of publishers and librarians?" and in an email message to me he suggests that "the interests of the two groups are on a collision course..."  I think many librarians feel that way, but it has become very clear to me, through my work with the Chicago Collaborative and the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, as well as so many of the numerous other conversations and interactions that I've had with publishers over the past decade that our interests are aligned in many more ways than they are in opposition.  But you'd never know that if the only conversations that you ever have are with somebody who is trying to get you to pay a price that's higher than what you want to pay. 

I'm a library director, so it's my job to worry about money and the health of my organization -- but of course, that's not ALL I worry about.  Publishers worry about research fraud, professional ethics, the development of young scholars, preservation and archiving, using new technologies to enhance communication, and developing better discovery and analysis tools to further the impact of research.  And, yes, they worry about how to get the scholarly literature into the hands of those who can benefit from it the most, which is why all of the major commerical STM publishers are experimenting with at least some kind of an open access or public access option.   The Roundtable's core recommendation is:  "Each federal research funding agency should expeditiously but carefully develop and implement an explicit public access policy that brings about free public access to the results of the research that it funds as soon as possible after those results have been published in a peer‐reviewed journal."  Every publisher in the room agreed with that -- the core disagreements had to do with how much government intervention is advisable and necessary.

I don't expect to agree on all issues with my colleagues in publishing.  For heaven's sake, Lynn and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary -- I know about having disagreements with people that you care about.  

Lorri and Paul made a very compelling case for how much can be improved for patients when the people involved in patient care -- including the patients themselves -- are part of a broad conversation that exists in an atmosphere of trust.  They also pointed out that creating that atmosphere is something that takes time, patience, hard work and a willingness to listen and to challenge one's own mental models.  Those of us who care about the future of scholarly communication can achieve a great deal as well, but we have to have that same willingness.