Re: No Free Lunches: We Should Resist the Push to Rush Research Online

From: Arthur Smith <>
Date: Tue, 09 Oct 2001 14:12:27 -0400

   I'm quite confident now that both free "no-frills" author-controlled
sites (like the arXiv) and standard "frill-filled" peer-reviewed
publishing can coexist, since they serve quite distinct purposes and in
some cases audiences. So no argument from me on Tim's # 2 or #3. But I
think there's a misunderstanding of some economic and political
principles on item #1

Tim Brody wrote:
> 1)
> Ewing seems to forget that the money that goes to pay subscriptions charges
> _is_ government or college money. Therefore, how can toll-access publishers
> cry foul when funding bodies decide it would make more sense to have
> free-access rather than toll-access (and to fund those publishers and
> organisations that provide free-access)?

Even though the ultimate source of the money may be the same (and even
that is arguable - don't forget industrial subscriptions, particularly
relevant for chemical and bio-medical jorunals, and all the
international give-and-take that makes a journal much more than a
one-country operation), the decision-making process along the way is
quite different in the two cases. I have yet to see any government
funding body willing to support peer review directly. What kind of
decision would it take to "decide it would
make more sense to have free-access rather than toll-access"? A federal
mandate like the freedom-of-information-act applied to academia, that so
many scientists rose up against a few years ago? Dictating to federally
funded institutions that they may no longer purchase subscriptions to

The essence of a commercial business is meeting the needs of the
customers - if what commercial publishers do is not meeting those needs,
then they will either have to change what they do, or be subject to mass
defections of one sort or another. And if you look, publishers have been
feverishly changing just about everything over the past few years. While
publishers may have a temporary monopoly over some research papers, they
can have no long-term monopoly over scientific information - there's
nothing preventing authors from rewriting their results in a somewhat
different form and making the information available in another journal;
and publishers have absolutely no say about subsequent publications by
others that may repeat much of the information provided in the first
publication on a subject.

There is a very strong, near uniformly held, political philosophy here
in the U.S. that prefers competitive, commercial markets to "government
programs". Various government efforts to try to "direct technological
innovation" through, for example, the Department of Commerce and the
Department of Energy, for example the "partnership for a next-generation
vehicle", have come under heavy fire and in truth have probably been
less effective than parallel commercial efforts anyway. Scholarly
publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the publishers
involved are unlikely to hold off their lobbyists if it really looks
like that's in their interests. And if they bring the issue to the
attention of those in power, they will almost certainly win. The
American Chemical Society has already fired an experimental shot here,
getting one version of the recent budget to zero out the DOE's
PubSCIENCE service.

> 2)
> Holding the literature hostage to add-on, "frill" services is crazy.
> Let publishers, universities, societies, google etc. provide "frills" and
> charge for them if they wish - the literature is the important thing, and if
> it is freely accessible the add-on services will be developed.

No argument there. Though it's unrealistic to expect the publishers to
also provide the free services - but if authors and institutions want
to, they should be allowed and encouraged.

> 3)
> Ewing raises the frightening prospect of all the scientific literature being
> "owned" by a few, powerful publishers.
> The only way to avoid this is to put the author give-away literature into
> the public domain (to be used by commercial and non-commercial bodies
> equally).

Agreed on two counts (commercial publishers cannot monopolize scientific
information; and authors should be allowed and encouraged to make their
work available free).

But I don't think that's quite what Ewing was saying anyway...

Received on Tue Oct 09 2001 - 21:47:11 BST

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