Pascal's Wager and Open Access (OA)

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sun, 5 Dec 2004 14:53:08 +0000

On Sun, 5 Dec 2004, Sally Morris (ALPSP) wrote:

> I am sure members of this list are all aware of the US Government's
> all too recent attempts (a) to censor what type of articles
> publishers can publish and (b) to censor the countries from where
> authors' work may be edited

Don't you think, Sally, that governments that are bent on censorship
would want to go to the source -- suppressing *publication* (as above)
-- rather than just coyly leaving the user's (institution's) ability to
pay the access tolls as the determinant of who can *access* what? (For in
that case, it is publishers themselves that are at risk under this sinister
speculative scenario, not OA!)

And (to lay to rest the conspiracy-theoretic temptation to see OA
as yet another dark instance of "government control"): Do you also
imagine a collective conspiracy on the part of institutions to suppress
access to their *own* research output, when that output is distributed
across institutional OAI archives (instead of being placed just in the
arbitrary central/governmental archives being contemplated here)? (For
then it is the author's freedom to publish that is under speculative
assault, not OA.)

Is this threat-level (code yellow?), then, as high as the threat that
universities will want to remove the journal *print* editions from their
shelves -- and particularly the articles by their own researchers? (For
then it is the freedom to do research at all that is under fancied
assault, not OA.)

Or are we to imagine the countries of the world co-conspiring to
suppress the Internet itself? (For then too, OA would hardly be the most
consequential casualty.)

No, Sally, this is special pleading; it cannot be called by any other
name: There is a status quo; I want to find all possible arguments to
preserve it exactly as it is. I worry about an eventuality that may pose
a risk (OA). I cannot attack it intrinsically or directly (because,
being a scientific journal publisher, I am committed to access-provision,
not to access-suppression), so I instead generate hypothetical doomsday
scenarios -- as many as possible, preferably, for in case this one is
not seen to be convincing, maybe that one will be. Just as long as it
serves to hold OA at bay.

That was the transparent (and rather disreputable) strategy of the APS's
team of legal sages recently; and their breathless panorama of phony
forensics will now stand as a permanent historical record of that
pathetic ploy.

    "Critique of APS Critique of NIH Proposal"

I am not saying, Sally, that you too are practising this conscious
and systematic policy of dreaming up any far-fetched counterfactual
speculation, just so it makes OA look menacing, and might thereby retard
its progress: I think you truly believe the journal publishing status quo
to be at risk from OA (and possibly, eventually, you might be right). But
then stick to the specific, plausible terms of that risk (OA publishing
might not be able to make ends meet, OA self-archiving might drive us
toward OA publishing) and not desperate and implausible ones that merely
serve to up the ante of apparent risk and fear!

Besides, the worst offenders in OA risk-mongering are neither lawyers nor
publishers but the intended beneficiaries of OA: the researchers themselves.
No one could have come up with a greater number of spurious reasons
for worrying (and accordingly being sluggish) about OA than they. Their
current record stands at 32, and it ain't over yet!

    "I-worry-about..." 32 prima facie concerns"

Let me close with an abstract point I have made before, on the subject
of selective, self-serving doomsday scenarios, from the standpoint of
Pascal's Wager. (Those weary of reasoning, or reading, may wish to tune
out here.)

    "There is something in [pre-emptive doomsday speculations] that
    sounds like the logic of Pascal's Wager: It is better to act in
    conformity with Belief, even if it is false, because the cost of
    being wrong if the Belief is true (burning forever in hell) outweighs
    the cost of being wrong if the Belief is false (leading a somewhat
    more constrained lifetime on earth). But of course this logic is all
    wrong, for Pascal simply presupposed the received Credo, the Christian
    one, C, with its myth of heaven, earth, and eternal damnation as the
    default option -- the null hypothesis, so to speak. But I could always
    raise the stakes, with another arbitrary Credo, Q, even more vengeful
    than the first, promising that if you believe C rather than Q, your
    punishment will not just be eternity in damnation, but your soul will
    split into an infinity of souls, each in its own hell, and each will
    feel not only its own suffering but that of all the others too!)...
    So one can reverse Pascal's Wager by simply arbitrarily changing
    the [sci-fi] pay-off matrix, by fiat."

A proposition can always prevail, in other words, if one weighs support
from doomsday prophecies on a par with actual empirical evidence. But then
all it takes to tilt the balance in the favour of the counterproposition
is to dream up a still more menacing counter-prophecy!

I would suggest staying away from doomsday prophecying, and sticking to the
empirical facts and probabilities. All the evidence to date is that OA can
and does peacefully co-exist with the prevailing toll-access (TA)
cost-recovery system. There may (or may not) be some eventual risk to
the TA system, and if so, it is not clear how much or how soon. All that is
clear is that the actual empirically demonstrated benefits of OA for
research and researchers today outweigh the hypothetical risk to TA for
publishers. Hence we should proceed with OA rather than being deterred
by doomsday scenarios.

    "The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition"

Stevan Harnad

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Received on Sun Dec 05 2004 - 14:53:08 GMT

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