Critique of Research Fortnight article on RCUK policy proposal

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 16 Sep 2005 22:56:16 +0100

    "Learned societies argue open access depletes research funds,"
    Research Fortnight 242, September 14, 2005

The above article, quote/commented below, was published unsigned,
but I believe it was written by the journalist (identity deleted) who
asked me the question I first prepend here, along with my answer.

>> "I am a journalist for Research Fortnight and I'm writing about
>> open access - in particular the contributions to the RCUK
>> debate. I saw your paper in response to the letter from ALPSP
>> and I wonder if I could have a chat with you about this. If this
>> is not convenient, perhaps you could could send an email.
>> I'm interested in how you back up the argument that open access
>> would not damage learned societies' journals?"

(1) It's not an "argument," it is evidence: 14 years of self-archiving
in the area where it is most advanced -- hence the best predictor of what
is and is not likely to happen elsewhere -- physics, in which some areas
already reached 100% self-archiving a number of years ago: No increased
cancellations, peaceful co-existence, active collaboration between both of
the learned societies involved -- the American Physical Society and the
Institute of Physics, on the one hand, and the self-archiving research
community and their archive (Arxiv) on the other hand.

(2) Besides that evidence -- and the absence of any evidence whatsoever
to the contrary -- there is also the fact that there is still a large
demand for the print edition, as well as a sustained demand for the
publisher's value-added online edition. (Self-archiving is only about
the author's own final draft, not the publisher's value-added version,
with citation links, XML mark-up, imprimatur, PDF, etc.)

(3) What *is* a Learned Society? you should be asking yourself: It is an
organisation of the members of a scholarly or scientific discipline. They
have conferences, they sponsor scholarships, they lobby government,
and some of them also publish journals. There is no evidence at all to
date that author self-archiving causes journal cancellations, as noted.

(4) But even if it were ever to prove to be the case that self-archiving
causes cancellations, self-archiving can and should of course be done
anyway. Research is being done for the sake of research impact and
progress, not for the sake of earning revenue for publishers, whether
Learned Societies or not. Self-archiving increases citation impact
by 50%-250%:

(5) Learned Societies' other activities -- meetings, scholarships and
lobbying -- can find other sources of support. Self-archiving has now
been demonstrated to increase research impact by 50%-250% in all fields
of research. The right way to ask the question about Learned Societies
is to ask whether anyone imagines that -- once this causal connection
between self-archiving and research impact is made fully known to all
researchers -- that researchers would *knowingly* to continue to subsidise
Learned Societies' other activities with *their own lost research impact*?

(6) The answer is most certainly: No. If ever self-archiving should
cause journal cancellations, it is Learned Societies who must find
other sources of revenue to support their other activities. Authors not
self-archiving their own work is not an option that anyone can defend,
on any grounds, and certainly not on the basis of the express mission
of Learned Societies, which is in the service of Learned Research.

(7) In general, it is good to remind ourselves that research publishing
(whether by trade publishers of Learned Society Publishers) is done in
the service of research, not vice versa.

> Learned societies argue open access depletes research funds
> Learned societies have warned that the open access policy
> proposed by Research Councils UK this summer threatens to close
> journals and deprive societies of income for grants and other
> research activity.

They have made this warning, and have provided no evidence at all in its
support. All existing evidence -- including that from fields of physics
that have been self-archiving for a decade and a half and reached 100%
some years ago -- is that there is peaceful co-existence between journal
publishing and author self-archiving. Those institutions that can afford
the publisher's value-added version purchase that; those researchers
whose institutions cannot afford the paid access, use the author's
self-archived draft.

> RCUK proposed, in June, that researchers funded by the research
> councils should be required to place resulting articles in either
> institutional or disciplinary repositories after a delay agreed with
> the publisher.

No, RCUK proposed to require funders to self-archive a soon as possible,
preferably by the date of publication. The requirement says nothing about
any delay. Nor does any delay serve the interests of research progress
and impact.

> Although the policy respects copyright, publishers are concerned
> that the large amount of information in repositories will mean
> libraries will not need journal subscriptions. They are calling for
> RCUK to determine accurately what the consequences of the policy
> would be before implementing it.

It is not clear what "determine accurately" could possibly mean. All the
evidence from the cases where the self-archiving is actually being done
is that it has no effect on journal subscriptions at all, even after many
years. It is hard to imagine the justification for continuing to deprive
research of its full impact on the basis on no evidence about negative
effects on subscriptions, and nothing but strong positive evidence about
its effects on research impact.

The only translation of this is that ALPSP is asking RCUK to "determine
accurately" that ALPSP's worries, based on no evidence and counter to
all existing evidence, are groundless; ALPSP apparently counts its own
subjective worries as face-valid evidence and does not count objective
evidence that their worries are groundless as an "accurate determination."

> In a letter to Ian Diamond, chairman of RCUK, in August, the
> Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers said,
> 'Librarians will increasingly find that 'good enough' versions of a
> significant proportion of articles in journals are freely available;
> in a situation where they lack the funds to purchase all the content
> their users want, it is inconceivable that they would not seek to
> save money by cancelling subscriptions to those journals. As a result,
> those journals will die.'

This is merely another repetition of the groundless worry, in the face
of no supporting evidence and all existing evidence to the contrary.

> Sally Morris, chief executive of ALPSP, told Research Fortnight
> researchers will not always respect embargo periods for journals,
> and that RCUK is 'suggesting strongly to authors that it will be
> endeavouring to persuade publishers to reduce or eliminate them'.

That is correct. Articles should be self-archived, with no delay
whatsoever. There is no scientific or scholarly justification for delaying
research impact and progress. And there would be no justification even
if there *were* evidence that it reduced journal revenues. Research is
not done in order to generate journal revenues, it is done in order to
generate research impact.

But in reality all evidence to date indicates that self-archiving does
not have any effect on journal revenues.

> 'At the very least we would want them to come out much more clearly
> and strongly in support of whatever embargo a publisher finds
> necessary to defend its journal,' Morris said.

Is research access and impact then to be blocked for as long as a
publisher deems necessary? And this without even any objective evidence
to support it? Is research then actually being funded and conducted
according to the perceived needs and worries of journal publishers? Is
that why public tax money pays 3.5 billion UK pounds per year to support
research? To have it embargoed as long as a publisher deems necessary,
as dictated by his worries?

> The Institute of Physics has already seen article downloads
> from its site diminish for journals whose content is substantially
> replicated in a repository, says ALPSP.

This statement is false, and is the exact opposite of what the Institute
of Physics has said (Swan & Brown 2005):

        "In a separate exercise we asked the American Physical Society
        (APS) and the Institute of Physics Publishing Ltd (IOPP) what
        their experiences have been over the 14 years that arXiv has
        been in existence. How many subscriptions have been lost as a
        result of arXiv? Both societies said they could not identify
        any losses of subscriptions for this reason and that they do not
        view arXiv as a threat to their business (rather the opposite --
        this in fact the APS helped establish an arXiv mirror site at
        the Brookhaven National Laboratory)." [Note: IOPP too is now
        about to host a mirror-site of arXiv, the central archive for
        self-archiving in physics. SH]

> Advocates of the open access model have criticised the learned
> societies' stance, arguing repositories have been delayed long
> enough. Stevan Harnad from the Department of Electronics and Computer
> Science at the University of Southampton, and a member the group who
> submitted a response to RCUK, said last week that there was already
> a 'peaceful co-existence' between societies and the self-archiving
> research community in physics.

What I actually wrote in print was:
    Journal Publishing and Author Self-Archiving:
    Peaceful Co-Existence and Fruitful Collaboration

> But even if self-archiving does cause cancellations of
> journal subscriptions, it should be done regardless,
> he says. 'Research is being done for the sake of research impact
> and progress, not for the sake of earning revenue for publishers,
> whether learned societies or not,' he said.

Fair enough: I did (and do) say precisely that.

> Universities UK, which represents all the country's universities, is
> supporting moves towards open access, which it says will enhance the
> reputation of UK research worldwide. But the Biosciences Federation,
> which includes 33 learned societies in the life sciences, backs
> ALPSP and said in a statement, 'Loss of journal income would then
> lead ... possibly to the closure of some societies.'

To remind everyone: All these dire warnings about loss of journal income,
closure of societies, etc. are based on no objective evidence, merely
subjective worries, voiced over and over, regardless of the absence of
supporting evidence and the continuing growth of the contrary evidence.

This non-argument does not gain force by dint of repetition, except to
the uninformed.

> The British Academy has also criticised the RCUK proposal for
> being vague, saying they need to consider researchers in the
> humanities and social sciences more.

The British Academy criticism is rather vague: What is is about
researchers in the humanities and social sciences that needs to be
considered more? Does their research not depend on being read, used,
applied and cited (i.e., research impact) just as all other fields of
research do?

> RCUK is analysing responses and will be talking with learned
> societies, universities and libraries before it makes its final
> decision on repositories next year.

So far, RCUK has made no announcement to the effect that it will delay
its final decision till next year. The comments period closed at the end
of August, and as far as the UK research community knows, the RCUK is

Stevan Harnad

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Received on Fri Sep 16 2005 - 23:13:40 BST

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