linking back to

My lab:

UPDATE: The piece in Nature is not, as I initially thought, a new article. It was already published in 2004, but for reasons only "the no. 1 weekly science journal" knows, it always has today's date attached to it and prominently displayed. While the arguments are thus outdated, they were already wrong in 2004.

Hot on the heels of confusing science with religion, the journal that calls itself "the no. 1 weekly science journal" (Nature) goes on to embarrass itself with "an independent assessment of the key arguments" surrounding open access. Given that Nature Publishing Group is a stakeholder itself, the independence of anything published there should not be taken for granted. Let's have a look at some of these 'independent arguments':
But even where research is publicly-funded, taxes are generally not paid so that taxpayers can access research results, but rather so that society can benefit from the results of that research; in the form of new medical treatments, for example. Publishers claim that 90% of potential readers can access 90% of all available content through national or research libraries, and while this may not be as easy as accessing an article online directly it is certainly possible.
In other words, society doesn't benefit from doctors and patients having access to medical research? That retired professors have access to research? The list goes on, e.g. at Clearly, not even close to 90% of those who need access have access to even anything remotely close to 90%. How about some survey data to counter baseless publishers' assertions who has access to how much? See slide 35 of my presentation. I'd challenge the publishers to back their claim up with some data, preferentially not their own surveys, if they have done any.
Another criticism of open access is that payment for publication could create conflicts of interest and have a negative impact on the perceived neutrality of peer review, as there would be a financial incentive for journals to publish more articles.
That argument only holds if one follows the baseless assumption that we should keep a journal system based on corporate publishers. Because corporate publishers in scholarly communication have about as much justification for their existence as the Pony Express or the telegraph, all arguments resting on that assumption fall flat. As previously pointed out on this blog and elsewhere, libraries (i.e. the ones paying the publishers) are in a much better position to take over the responsibilities publishers carry today.
Open Access is also often seen as a solution to the 'serials crisis,' a situation where many libraries have been forced to cut journal subscriptions because of price increases. Subscription charges - and the volume of content published - have undisputedly risen more sharply than library budgets. But it is worth questioning to what extent the serials crisis is also due to the level of library budgets – typically around 2% of a university's budget. Some would argue that this level is insufficient in the information age in which we live.
Really? In times when access to information has become so cheap that newspaper empires are crumbling, universities, many of them publicly funded, should pay more for the commodity everyone else is paying less for? That argument takes some more reasoning than just stating it.
They cannot be blamed for running their businesses in such a way as to maximise profits.
I agree in principle with this argument, although some people might find the way in which these profits are generated obscene:

Indeed, in recent years the investment made in online and electronic information services could be viewed as balancing out high levels of profits in previous years. Elsevier, for example, has invested at least £45 million in its ScienceDirect service over the past five years, and has also developed the free-to-use science search engine Scirus.
That argument is so ridiculous, one questions the algebraic competence of the author. According to their own reports, Elsevier has posted profits of 3.918 billion EUR over the last 5 years. The 45m pounds (57m EUR) thus constitute a whopping 1.5% of their adjusted operating profits. Now I'm no economist, so I'd really like to know how 1.5% "balance out the profits"?
Moreover, although journals can be accessed free of charge under Open Access, publishing these often involves charging authors or their institutions article processing charges.
Again, only if one assumes the Pony Express will keep riding forever.
Many critics are dubious of Open Access because they do not believe that the model is economically sustainable, and that, if relied upon, could damage the market as publishing businesses and learned societies experience difficulties due to reduced revenues.
Well, boohoo, what do you think the Pony Express riders or telegraph operators were saying when their end was nigh? 
In June 2004 Elsevier re-defined its policy on post-prints and institutional repositories: “An author may post his or her version of the final paper on personal web sites and on the institution’s web site (including its institutional repository). Each posting should include the article’s citation and a link to the journal’s home page (or the article’s DOI). The author does not need our permission to do this, but any other posting (i.e. to a repository elsewhere) would require our permission. By “his version” we are referring to a Word or Text file, not a PDF or HTML downloaded from Science Direct – but the author can update the version to reflect changes made during the referencing or editing processes. Elsevier will continue to be the single, definitive archive for the formal published version.”
For one, their policy has now changed to somewhat slightly more idiotic. Second, even if it hadn't, their publicly displayed policy is belied by their attempts to prevent such depositing using the generous 'sponsoring' of lawmakers to introduce bills (the RWA) aimed at preventing such repositories from being filled. Finally, the fact that even if they allow such pre-print deposition, they do so only after an embargo period, reveals that the publishers themselves are not confident they deliver anything of value (i.e., worth paying for). If the publishers themselves have no confidence in their own value, why should we pay them?
Open Access, argue critics, does not allow for sufficient investment in technology.
This is such a reversal of fact, it made me lol. Given the very rough estimates of the world-wide academic publishing market with ~12b USD annually in revenue and a fairly accurate estimate of a ~30% profit margin across the main players, there is a potential for 4b USD annual investment in a scholarly communication infrastructure, if libraries would stop spending that money on subscriptions and instead spent the 8b on the publishing costs they'd incur if they published themselves. Compared with the 57m EUR investment by Elsevier, this is roughly a 70-fold increase in investment if universal open access was accomplished by simply cutting out the middlemen.
However, publishers and other interested parties have invested significantly in recent years to develop services such as Thomson’s Web of Knowledge or Elsevier’s Scopus which allow access through a single point to content from a range of publishers
Wait a minute: the fact that we have to go to a gazillion different places to find our literature in this year 2012, instead of using a single smart search tool, is supposed to be some sort of accomplishment? In my presentation on this issue, this example is on one of my first slides where I show just how dysfunctional our publishing system is!
Capacity for innovation is particularly important in this information age. Market demands from the academic and scientific community are changing and developing alongside the growth of the Internet, and journal publishers are adapting their views of how journal article content fits into the information spectrum. There are now examples of publishers offering more than just the journal content, or bypassing the publication of research results as articles but instead providing citable references within a database.
I guess this is supposed to say that the publishers are now slowly realizing that they should at least offer their users the technology of the early 1990s or all hell will break lose. Well, I for one am not content with 20 year old technology. I want today's technology to assist me in my job and I'm sick and tired of publishers telling me why I have to wait another 20 years before I can even see a preview of it. Scientists have waited patiently for two decades now for publishers to adopt modern technology. I have to say, my patience is worn out. Maybe others are more patient than me.
The fact that revenue generated by charging author fees is unlikely to generate the same levels of income that subscriptions have traditionally provided, also creates problems for learned societies, in particular. Profit levels are a major issue for learned societies: a straw poll of ALPSP members in February 2004 revealed that the vast majority of learned societies (87.5% of respondents) generate a surplus from their publishing activities10; this surplus is necessary in order to support these societies’ other, non-revenue generating or loss-making activities.
This is indeed a valid concern learned societies have to face. However, why should the taxpayer care if the learned societies relied on the Pony Express to generate revenue? Should the taxpayer be expected to keep the Pony Express alive only because otherwise the membership fees of those learned societies would have to rise which aren't innovative enough to find other sources of income?
It seems reasonable to assume that any system which cannot demonstrate economic sustainability in the long term will not prove successful – at present the Open Access system in not in a position to provide that proof for the satisfaction of the majority.
Who said Open Access needs to be provided by the Pony Express, when we have the railroad?
However, scientific publishing is a demonstrably valuable service and one which does not come cheap, particularly in this era of electronic development. Any emerging models will have to be grounded firmly in economic reality to have any chance of success.
The economic realities are that the actual costs of scholarly communication today lie somewhere in the ballpark of 8b annually. And the taxpayers are paying an additional 4b every year for something not even the recipients of these 4b can find any reasons for. I'd like to know why we should keep paying these 4b into the pockets of the publishers' shareholders, instead of investing them in something the public actually benefits from, such as a world-wide public library of science (supported by all the ~10k university libraries in the world) that makes not only the scholarly articles, but also the data itself as well as the software to mine, analyze and visualize these data accessible and sustainably archived for all humankind? I have not found a single sentence in this article explaining what the taxpayer receives from being overcharged 4b every single year. Where are the cons of a public library of science that saves the taxpayers of this planet 4b every year?
Posted on Friday 24 August 2012 - 23:03:15 comment: 0

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