Thursday, August 30, 2007

Here and back again. . .

An interesting discussion on open access continues both here and on Deltoid. One tdawwg has had, I think the better of the argument, and there are two points of his which Eli wishes to both agree and disagree with

So why is market regulation to recoup costs so abhorrent? And I would argue that however publicly funded research may be, there is a substantial individual contribution that renders the scholarly work individual, not public, property.


The idea that academics don't need to publish in peer-reviewed journals is not disingenuous. The system we have now hasn't existed forever: it was arrived at consensually, with many parties agreeing and disagreeing over how it should work, who does what, etc. I see no reason why the intellectual elite can't come up with an acceptable alternative if they find that the restrictions of paying for copyrighted content are too much for them, are morally odious, etc.
To really understand what is happening one needs to know a few things about scientific publishing. This post is somewhat of a backgrounder.

When Eli as a young and rather small underbunny sat at the feet of a great Hare. Big Foot occassionaly remarked in passing that post WWII it was obvious that scientific research in the US was going to be a huge and important thing driven by government funding. The great and good sat with the political types and all realized that this would result in an explosion of academic publication with increasing stress on libraries to keep up. They thought large thoughts about how to fund it quickly realizing that there were several possibilities:

  • Direct funding of academic presses and/or scientific organizations (AAAS, etc)
That would leave the commercial presses out in the cold, which was a big communist type no-no. Or what we have now:
  • Subvention of the academic presses through page charges paid by the authors from their grants
  • Subvention of the libraries through overhead (now called F&A or facilities and administrative) charges
  • Expensive journals from commercial publishers.

Almost every grant has a couple of thousand $ or more per year for page charges. What are page charges you ask, well they are an amount that the authors pay per article/per page to cover some of the costs of publications. Most scientific organizations have page charges for their publications, and there are arrangements where the needy (or whiny) can have them forgiven. The National Academy policy is both typical and indicative of how such organizations are trying to meet the challenge of open access

PNAS depends, in part, on the payment of page charges for its operation. Payment of the page charge of $70 per printed page will be assessed from all authors who have funds available for that purpose. Authors will be charged for extensive alterations on proofs. Payment of $250 per article will be assessed for Supporting Information. Authors of research articles may pay a surcharge of $1,100 to make their paper freely available through the PNAS open access option. If your institution has a 2007 Site License, the open access surcharge is $800. All articles are free online after 6 months. Articles are accepted or rejected for publication and published solely on the basis of merit.

Payment by authors of the following additional costs is expected: $325 for each color figure or table; $150 for each replacement or deletion of a color figure or table. A single figure is defined as original art that can be processed as a unit and printed on one page without intervening type. Requests for waiver of charges should be submitted to
The AGU "basic publication fee" (PC for page charge) structure is more complicated. Google "pages charges" and you will come up with a bundle of these policies and a severe case of MIGO.

When you go through the exercise the learned society (AIP, ACS, AGU, RSC, etc.) have pretty reasonable policies and subscription fees and are pretty close to break even on their publishing through the combination. Demanding that they go open access without another funding mechanism will destroy them.

On the other hand commercial presses, such as Elsevier (aka Darth Publisher) simply stick it to the libraries. The libraries are up against it with increasing subscription rates. Eli's place has been triaging journal subscriptions for the last ten years and it is really tight now. This letter to the faculty from the University of Maryland Libraries gives you a fair picture of what is happening:

As detailed in the Provost's letter, in 2003 Elsevier maintained a negotiating stance with the Libraries that failed to meet the Libraries' criteria for control over collection decisions and for the ability to exercise prudent management of rapidly escalating subscription costs.

Elsevier wanted the Libraries to commit to an entire set of journals whereas the Libraries wanted to subscribe to individual titles and to retain the authority to cancel subscriptions as necessary. When the Libraries opted out of the package arrangement, Elsevier raised its 2004 prices an average of 27% per title.

The Libraries will scrutinize Elsevier subscriptions carefully and will exercise its right to make title-by-title subscription decisions. All publications from Elsevier warrant this careful attention since their prices increase at such a rapid rate, well over the rate of inflation. Furthermore, the Libraries spend roughly 1.5 million dollars for Elsevier subscriptions. This amount accounts for 43% of all journal expenditures, but only 8% of the total number of current journal subscriptions. The Libraries need to ensure that these titles are bringing real value to the campus.

Usage data tallied for 2004 and cost per use calculations will inform subscription renewal decisions this year.

  • The average use per Elsevier title in 2004 was 226.
  • The average cost per use in 2004 was $9.27.
Further, a letter to the MIT community

“…we are concerned about the pressures exerted on the scholarly publishing system by a small number of highly profitable commercial publishers concentrating in science and technology journals. These publishers lock libraries into high-priced packages for combined print/electronic output, and contractually constrain libraries’ ability to manage expenditures. Libraries must invest a continually larger percentage of their budgets in providing access to these publications.”

Professor Marcus Zahn, Chair of the Faculty Committee on the Library System, The MIT Faculty Newsletter, Dec.-Jan., 2003
Our favorite boat anchor is Tetrahedron Letters, $12.8K/yr for one journal, one that we have to have to maintain our ACS accreditation.

The bottom line is that for open access to work, research funding organizations will have to pay considerably more than they do now and authors will have to stay away from the commercial publishers who currently control key titles. Eli is not opposed to any of this, but he is not a raw enough Rabett to think that this will occur simply and without a fur fight.


Anonymous said...

"I would argue that however publicly funded research may be, there is a substantial individual contribution that renders the scholarly work individual, not public, property."

And I would argue that that is a separate issue from "open access".

Individuals and universities already make money from the fruits of their labors -- and that is not the point anyway. In a very real sense, they have already been reimbursed for the cost of making their results accessible -- when they took the public research dollars.

They should not be in the business of charging additional money to cover the minor cost of making the results accessible. That's double charging the public as far as i am concerned.

besides, if a University is concerned mainly with making money off research, the solution is simple. They can simply refuse public funding. That way, there will be no issue about who owns what.

of course, few (if any) universities would ever do this because without such public funding, most would cease to exist.

Anonymous said...

The patent system is a perfect example of privately owned ideas being published for all to see.

in fact, one of the primary (stated) purposes of the patent system (at least in the US) is to stir innovation by making the description of the device/method clear enough that anyone can produce it -- and possibly make it better.

Furthermore, in the case of patents, it's not just publicly funded patents that are treated that way. it is all patents.

Marion Delgado said...

Okay, look. A lot of that is not good argument for good things. It's cultlike, fascist capitalist bullshit.

Really. This is no better than creationism and a great deal less rational and scientific than half the climate denialist arguments. Or the 9/11 truth theories.

Funding research via foundations and taxes - funding tuition - are all hallmarks of an advanced civilization. And for God's sake, that includes funding peer-reviewed journals, which, if you've followed sociology of science or history of science discussions over the years, is usually described as the center, the key to scientific progress.

Yes, of course, the same people - and yes, they are libertarians - who want to defund tuition everywhere and defund research that's not defense related - also want to keep academic journals on a for-profit basis and make the margins they made when they were paying for dead trees and ink. I am in a business that still USES those, so I am not talking through my hat here.

This is reminiscent of the onset of CDs - there they are again, Eli! The recording industry - that part that had a physical plant, physical capital - had a cut they took out of each vinyl album - since it was a cost, it went to neither the artists nor the labels, or not most of it - but rather to the cost of processing petroleum and/or cellulose sources into vinyl, and pressing, etc. When they got CDs, which cost far less to manufacture, they - I would say criminally dishonestly - simply kept charging the "vinyl" fee. Since they were spending fractions of pennies where they had been spending quarters, the incentive to get everyone to buy CDs instead of vinyl became enormous, and it was certainly one reason they were so heavily promoted - easier to make, easier to store.

What I mean is, we've been here before. IF the people pushing against open access can insist you think only in their terms, within their bounds, and agree with every single one of their preconceived notions, then yeah, they'll "get the better of" the abject worthless non-argument that results.

Worshipful Professor Rabbett, if one can suggest it, you might consider refreshing your history on Richard Stallman, starting with being unable to use his university printer for Stalinist-capitalist reasons - a very Kafkaesque situation - up to when he leveraged the existing intellectual property laws and put them to actual positive academic and social uses.

What's missing on the "other side" of this debate seems to ME to be any good will whatsoever. It's taken as a God given fact that anything that exists exists only so some capitalist can charge someone else money for it. Where sane people need to direct their energy is in a Fabian battle where you leverage away the weakest cases, and where enough of the research users don't mind not being part of open access, you leave it alone.

Instead of a fur fight, I think the usual end run and leave them on the ash heap of history approach is called for. The history of open source, the GPL, the news blogosphere, wikipedia, etc. suggests that just perhaps having a CEO who mostly publishes soap opera digests be the final arbeiter on how an academic journal should run is, at least, not an unalterable natural law.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Marion.

End runs are usually very effective.

it's hard to see exactly how the whole thing will play out, but i would bet that things will become less centralized, not more so.

on the issue of information storage and retrieval, de-centralization is almost always better than centralization (a point james Annan made on the previous thread).

The primary problem with a centralized library (or database) is that no matter how careful you are, it is always subject to fire (or in the case of the database, erasure) and if you only have one copy in one place in one format, once it goes, it is gone for good.