Having gotten caught up to some extent in the Open Access debate over research publications, I am continually astonished by the lack of objectivity and the sheer partisanship of many of the participants. For those unfamiliar with Open Access or OA, this is the principle of “information wants to be free” applied to the world of research publications, with a particular emphasis on publications in the STM (scientific, technical, and medical) category. I am myself an advocate of many forms of OA publishing, so in criticizing some aspects of the OA agenda, I am not attempting to argue the other side, that is, the side of traditional publishing, especially by practitioners in the commercial sector. What I do not advocate is using baseless or incomplete arguments in support of anything, whether OA, WMD, or steroids in baseball. (For anyone interested in looking into the background of OA, Google any or all of the following: “open access”, “Peter Suber”, “Stevan Harnad”, and the Budapest and Bethesda initiatives. Suber’s blog is the best place to go for one-stop shopping.)
It’s really time we put some science into science publishing.
There is a lot that is right (meaning well-argued, credible, and substantiated) about OA, but here is a partial list of what is not. For starters, there is the repeated insistence that librarians are stupid. The form this assertion takes is to argue that librarians will continue to pay for something that they can get for free. Yes, you heard that right. A professional librarian, working for a research university, is responsible for purchasing academic journals. Now let us imagine that some of those journals are available at no cost to that library or any other, but the librarian, knowing full well that there is no longer a need to pay for the publications, continues to write checks to the publishers. How did we reach this preposterous conclusion? Because we note that the “evidence” (Orwell would love this) doesn’t show any cancellations of journals that currently have at least a partial OA policy. What is ignored here is the simple fact that it is too soon to say. OA is a new thing, it is rarely implemented across the board for any publication, and the services that provide it are not always deemed to be reliable (e.g., experimental institutional repositories), at least not yet. Apparently the point of this argument is to lull publishers into a false sense of security (“Make your publications OA and nothing bad will happen”), so it is not only librarians who are deemed to be stupid but publishers as well.
It’s not enough that librarians are stupid, but with similar logic it has been concluded that authors are mostly law-abiding. (Who would have thought otherwise?) This nutty argument is harder to untangle. It’s a demonstrable fact that most authors of research publications have not shown much interest in OA. This could change, but it hasn’t to date. (And, I hasten to add, that “most” is not the same thing as “all.”) There is clear evidence here: Many researchers work at institutions that provide free OA repository services (DSpace is the best known, Digital Commons is the most used), but only a fraction of the institutions’ output has been deposited into these repositories. One way to change that would be–surprise!–to have the senior administration of these institutions mandate that faculty deposit papers with OA services. Thus in a survey conducted by Alma Swan et al, it was found that 81% of researchers say that they would comply with mandates. Now, what does this prove exactly? More than 81% of Americans comply for the most part with the U.S. Tax Code, but that is hardly indicative of support for the current administration or the way tax monies are spent. What it does reveal is a healthy respect for the punitive powers of The Man. In OA circles, however, a forecast compliance with a mandate is viewed as the equivalent of democratic support.
A more complicated item, and one that is more susceptible to reasoned argument, is what is called the Open Access Advantage. No, this is not a frequent flier program but the notion that authors who work in OA formats are more likely to be cited than authors who work in proprietary or “toll-access” media. Superficially, this may appear to make sense; after all, if everyone can read an OA article, surely it has a better chance of getting cited than an article that has more limited distribution by virtue of the constraints imposed by subscription barriers. On the other hand, an article in the toll-access Lancet is much more likely to be cited than an article deposited in a no-name repository, with only Google keyword searching enabling the poor, already overburdened reader. Once again we find Alma Swan behind this.
The problem with the alleged Open Access Advantage is, first, it entirely ignores the overall marketing context of any particular work. The fact is that some OA venues are brilliantly marketed; I would point to the Public Library of Science in particular. But marketing is not a constant; it varies journal by journal, issue by issue, and article by article. Swan’s analysis does not take these variables into account.
More fundamentally, though, we have here the common but huge mistake of many people who have not been thinking about the dynamics of the Internet for a long time, and that is the unstated belief in “once and for all computing.” This paradigm–once and for all–assumes that the Internet has arrived, that its current state pretty much resembles its future state. (A corollary to this error is the assumption that we control the network, when in fact, for better or worse, the network is largely and increasingly independent, with its own properties, almost an emergent life form.) Better to think of the current stage of the Internet (switching metaphors) as the second inning of a nine-inning ballgame. Before this game is over, entirely new and as-yet undreamed-of ways to call attention to content on the Internet will arise, and whatever advantage OA may hold today (in some circumstances for some articles) will be handed off to other publishing forms–which may, in time, hand them back to OA. The wheel goes ’round; where it stops, nobody knows.
Advocates of toll-access or traditional publishing should take no comfort from this. While many of the arguments for OA are offered in bad faith or with the best of intentions but the worst of reasoning, there is one stubborn fact about the Internet and OA, and that is that it is very, very easy for someone to connect to the Internet and upload content. OA is thus at a minimum an inevitable and unstoppable phenomenon. The justifications for it may be doubtful, but the fact of it is indisputable.