Gas station without pumps

2010 November 12

Open access to scientific research, part 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:02
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In the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Academe, AAUP published an article by Barry Eisenberg and Lisa Romero
titled “Restoring the Health of Scholarly Publishing“.  Although the article is rather dry and poorly written, as most articles in Academe are, it brings up an interesting parallel between scholarly publishing and health care.  In both, the prices to the end user have been growing far faster than inflation, and the profit margins and executive compensations of some of the providers have grown to obscene levels.

The authors miss some of the important parallels, however, in that in both the end-user has little choice other than to forego service, and the prices are set by secret negotiations.  (Libraries are usually given small discounts in return for not being allowed to say what price they are paying for journals.) When the final users of a service have no information about the prices and no power to switch providers, there is no market force containing prices and inflation is impeded only by the ethics of the provider, which history shows is not an effective constraint on pricing.

The authors make a case for reversing the rapid rise of journal prices, but do not explain how this can be accomplished.  Here are their take-home lessons:

Lesson 1: Just as restricting access to health-care weakens our national health, restricting access to scholarship jeopardizes the scholar’s ability to advance our society. Therefore, we must protect the free flow of scholarship to all who may benefit before we protect the economic interests of those who profit from controlling that flow.

Lesson 2: Scholars and academic librarians should identify common interests and formulate a shared agenda. Discussions should occur systematically and regularly, for example, in strategic planning contexts and at professional conferences. These stakeholder groups can do together what neither can do alone to develop new ways of obtaining, managing, and spreading scholarship.

Lesson 3: Concerted and systematic efforts to identify, imagine, and harness the power of emerging technologies should be pursued for their capacity to disseminate scholarship and facilitate shared experiences in using it.

Lesson 4: If it appears that the obstacles to obtaining scholarship are prohibitive, some regulation of publishers and distributors may be necessary to establish a system in which such scholarship is kept affordable and accessible.

Lesson 5: Only through comprehensive reform will a model emerge that establishes the primacy of the consumer and unrestricted access to scholarship as its core elements.

To the extent that I can interpret their turgid prose, I believe that they are arguing that the federal government should step in and do something, though what they think the government can and should do is unclear. Meanwhile, academics should have “discussions”.  The authors wrote everything in the passive voice using vague verbs, so that someone should do something, but it is not precisely clear who is called on to do what, nor why that vague action would have any desirable effect.  In fact, they don’t even give good reasons why the rising prices of journals are a problem for anything but library budgets, using just a weak analogy with universal health care that it will somehow be good for everyone to have access to everything.

If this is the best that the librarians can come up with as a call for action, then it is no wonder that most scholars remain apathetic.

In a future post, I will look at a more specific call for action from the ISCB (the International Society for Computational Biology).


  1. Well, I hate academic articles that argue that someone should just do something through some sort of vague discussions. I think the feds have little ability to influence the means through which things are published, unless they control the purse strings.

    In the case of NIH or NSF funded research, they’d be totally within their authority to require that information be published in an open access format. NIH does require that information be placed in the pubmed site a year after it’s been published. That’s making a real difference now, in eventual availability. They could shorten this period; it’s within their authority, though not political muscle at this point. Howard Hughes is also requiring open access of some sort.

    Folks publishing without funding? The government can’t tell them where to publish.

    Libraries might receive some form of federal funding, in which case they can be required to not, for example, engage in secret deals. The big public libraries are joining this battle against the journals, but I don’t know what the outcomes of all the battles have been. Some public libraries are either releasing, or being forced to release their contract pricing by the use of Public Records laws. The public records law in Washington, Wisconsin, and potential Florida will probably cover the release of the contract info.

    The UC system just had a public battle with Nature Group. Do you know what the outcome was?

    Comment by bj — 2010 November 12 @ 06:53 | Reply

  2. According to the librarian I talked to last week, the UC system is still in negotiations with the Nature Group. Nothing has been resolved yet. I think that when it is resolved, it would be worthwhile for a Freedom of Information Act request to get the prices UC is paying for journals. Secret negotiations lead to higher prices for all.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 November 12 @ 07:47 | Reply

  3. […] blogged before about  an AAUP article on open-access publication,  ISCB open-access policies, and IEEE open-access publishing, as well as passing on an […]

    Pingback by Yet another open access journal « Gas station without pumps — 2011 July 13 @ 09:31 | Reply

  4. […] discussed open-access publication policies in the past: Open access to scientific research part 1, ISCB open access policies, IEEE endorses hybrid open access, and New open-access journal. […]

    Pingback by Princeton goes open access « Gas station without pumps — 2011 October 10 @ 19:07 | Reply

  5. […] posted a bit on academic publishing before (for example, at ISCB open access policies and Open access to scientific research, part 1), and I’ll probably have more to say on it in the […]

    Pingback by Boycott of Elsevier « Gas station without pumps — 2012 February 7 @ 18:20 | Reply

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