Does this make me Orthodox?

T. Scott Plutchak describes himself as an OA heretic (“Martin Luther continued to believe in Jesus…”) in decrying what he calls the “strong moralistic approach” to Open Access advocacy. He and I disagree fairly extensively (hence the entry title); to wit:

When one takes the strong moralistic approach, the open access all or nothing approach, and treats it as if it is the most important issue in scholarly publishing, then one is essentially absolved from the difficult consideration of social costs. If one feels that the social benefits of open access are clearly and completely overwhelming, then one is compelled to push for whatever solutions might point in that direction and let the chips fall where they may. But to righteously ignore the fact that some of those chips may fall very heavily indeed is irresponsible.

1. It’s hardly fair to equate ethical arguments for OA with an “all or nothing” approach and to set up “if one feels that” strawmen, particularly if you’re going to complain in the same entry that others’ rhetoric “has been extremely damaging to the entire discussion”.
2. Of the issues of which I am aware, OA is the most important issue in scholarly publishing, being at once one of the most pressing and one of the most readily solved. I’d be interested to hear of any that are more important. That being said, the most important issue is not the only important issue, and there is no shortage of reasonable OA advocates happy to acknowledge that.
3. “Social costs” is frequently shill-speak for “loss of profits” on the part of publishing companies. My heart does not bleed at this prospect. (Scott, I hasten to add, means something different — he goes on to talk about re-allocation of research budgets to cover publishing costs; see below.)

In a mom and apple pie kind of way, the statement that taxpayers should have immediate access to the results of federally funded research is trivially true. But this could easily be met by having scientists write up the results of their work and post it to publicly available websites. This, however, is clearly not what those who are making the argument would be satisfied with — they still want the benefits of the peer review and editing processes that are part of the publication system and that are not, under the traditional system, paid for by the taxpayers. It is the subscription system that currently pays for those added benefits.

1. The “mom and apple pie” clause and the word “trivially” are pure snark here. The statement is simply true.
2. What proportion of the libraries and institutions that form the bulk of the subscription market are publicly funded? I’d be surprised if, even in the US, the majority of toll-access revenues were not readily traceable back to public coffers. Moreover, the return on whatever public dollars are being spent on subscriptions could be increased by using that money to pay for OA. Yes, research and scholarly publication are separate costs, but it’s a mistake (or a convenient strawman) to claim that the taxpayer access argument conflates them. It does not; Peter Suber has gone over this in some detail in the SPARC newsletter, issue #65.

…having funders pay for publication costs […] seems perfectly reasonable and logical to me. It is not, however, without social costs, and the blithe response on the part of the advocates, who dismiss the concern about costs by saying it is such a tiny portion, maybe 2% or so, of overall NIH funding, is simply not sufficient. At a time when the NIH budget is flattening and competition for grants is becoming tighter and tighter (at present, NIH is funding just under 20% of approved applications), and promising young scientists are leaving academic careers because they’re not able to get that all important first grant, shifting even 2% of the budget toward publication is not a trivial matter. Open access advocates need to do a much better job of making a compelling and detailed case for why the benefit is worth the cost.

1. OA advocates have put forward a great many compelling and detailed arguments regarding the benefits of OA; see also Peter Suber’s response to Scott.
2. A 2% shift in a $25 billion budget is not a trivial amount of money, nor are the careers potentially cut short trivial, but we are not talking about absolute amounts and feel-good (or feel-bad) personal stories. We are talking about policy decisions at the federal government level. I stand a fair chance of being one of the young scientists (I scruple to describe myself as “promising”!) who will fail to establish an academic career as a result of tightening budgets. From that precipitous perspective, let me state for the record: if one of the costs of widespread OA is my research career, then so be it: the needs of the many, and all that. I got into science in the first place to try to make the world a better place.

The taxpayer rights argument is the soundbite hook on which FRPAA hangs as well, and it is a soundbite that plays well with members of congress and in the press. But, of course, FRPAA itself is a compromise and doesn’t provide any more immediate access than the Highwire publishers do independently. “Libraries aren’t going to cancel subscriptions if there is an embargo,” say the partisans. Since this seems so obvious to them, they accuse the publishers who are opposed to FRPAA of bad faith for claiming that they are concerned about the survivability of their organizations.

1. The access may not be any more immediate, but it is a lot cheaper. Further, if all the embargo is doing is protecting the profits of private corporations, governments would seem to me to have a compelling interest in mandating (and, yes, paying for) immediate OA.
2. In respect of subscriptions, I agree in part with Scott, in that I think OA — especially once we get rid of the embargo by paying publication costs upfront — will cause subscription cancellations. (Although I have yet to see any data that support this contention, it still seems intuitively likely to me.) The obvious impact is two-fold: for-profit publishers will have to adapt or die, and the science community is going to have to find new ways to carry out peer review. Between traditional publishers who are willing and able to adapt, existing OA publishers (PLoS, Hindawi, BMC) and numerous high-profile experiments in overhauling peer review, I am confident that no scholarly crisis is likely when the subscription model dies.

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