Open Access Priorities: Lay Public Access or Researcher Access?

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 9 May 2006 16:52:12 +0100

> Dear Stevan:
> OK, I agree with you: a very good argument for self-archiving is indeed
> that peers can't gain access. But this does *not*, I believe, obviate the
> fact that the public also can't gain access and the public will very
> likely put the information to good use.

No disagreement there. And, as I said, public access automaticall
comes with the territory (for free) if researchers self-archive free
for all. My point was not that the public should not have access! Nor
that the public could not possibly benefit from access. It was that the
primary motivation for open access to research is so *researchers* should
have access, for the sake of research impact, productivity and progress.

And the reason it is so important to make it crystal clear that that is the primary
motivation for open access is to make sure that the publishing lobby cannot use
arguments against the weak, secondary motivation (lay public access) to defeat
the strong, primary motivation (peer researcher access).

> I also must respectfully disagree with your point about scientific
> literature being somehow different from SEC filings and patents because
> the audience for which the material is intended can't gain access only in
> the first instance. In fact, before free on-line availability, it was
> inconvenient for practitioners (investment analysts and patent agents
> largely) to gain access to data they needed to conduct their jobs. Patent
> agents would sit in the patent office in Alexandria, Virginia sifting
> through patents in shoe boxes. (I suppose your disenfranchised academics
> *could* similarly find their way to a university library, the National
> Library of Medicine or the Library of Congress!) Investment analysts
> paid high fees to redistributors of data, and before the time of digital
> access, had to dig through records at the SEC headquarters in Washington,
> D.C.

There are a few similarities there, I agree. But now we are mixing up open vs.
toll access issues with online vs. paper access issues. Moreover, for research, *no*
library can afford access to anything but a fraction of the peer-reviewed journal
literature, universities can't offer online (licensed) access to outside users, and
in the online age, at the current pace of research, it no longer makes sense to think
in terms of active researchers letting their feet rather than their fingers do the
walking from link to link!

> When the U.S. government provided free on-line access the professional
> audiences benefited enormously, but the unintended consequences in terms
> of public good have been even greater. Actually, I shouldn't say
> "unintended" because the reason that the government was forced (kicking
> and screaming I might add) to make SEC and patent data free is precisely
> because the argument was made that the general public would benefit. Of
> course, the big data purveyors like Thompson Publishing and also IBM that
> ran a patent database (initially freely accessible but then fee-based)
> lost revenue sources but their lobbying fell on deaf ears when the "public
> benefit" argument was raised. Enough said.

I must confess, I don't understand enough about SEC and patent data to know who uses
it for what, whether professional or not. But I have a question: Could all the
*professionals* afford licensed access to *all* of the data in question? And if not,
would what the professionals could not afford to access have meant a loss
to the public? If the answer to the first question is that professionals
could never afford anywhere near all of it, and the fact that they could
not do so meant an even larger loss to the public, then there is more
to this analogy than I thought.

But the second part still does not follow: I likewise do not understand
what use lay people make of SEC and patent data, but if giving them
access yielded palpable benefits that outweighed business loss to the
database providers, that's splendid. Yet there is still definitely no
such case to be made with lay use of research data in general: There is
an argument for the special case of clinically relevant biomedical data,
and perhaps a few other special cases as well. But the reason I said those
were a Trojan Horse is that if the FRPAA's general case for mandating
self-archiving rides on those special cases, then the natural publisher
strategy is to make a side-deal: We will make clinically relevant articles
publicly accessible -- but leave the rest of published research (the
vast majority of it) alone, because the public does not need or want it.

Remember that the publisher lobby's argument is that mandatory
self-archiving puts their revenues at risk. There is no evidence for
this, but the question becomes moot if there is no strong reason for
even *taking* the risk in the first place! And for lay use of the vast
majority of peer-reviewed research there would be no strong reason for
taking the risk (if there were one).

The battle of the risk -- i.e., showing, again, that there is no evidence
for any risk, let alone the size of the risk, and that the only way
to find out is to mandate self-archiving and see whether it diminishes
subscription revenues, and if so, how much -- that battle will have to
be fought in any case, for the FRPAA mandate. But if the argument for
the *benefits* to the public is based on the potential benefits from
lay use of the vast majority of this literature, then those benefits are
so nebulous and negligible that they are immediately outweighed by even
the *talk* of hypothetical, potential risks!

And, to repeat, *nothing is gained* by insisting on giving lay access primacy in
making the case for Open Access. Basing the case for OA on the far more solid and
defensible researcher-to-researcher access/impact problem -- a real, demonstrable
problem, with real, demonstrable benefits from OA -- allows the proponents of the bill
to counter the publishing lobby's arguments against the weaker, secondary motivation
(lay, public access) and at the same time *nothing is lost*: because Open Access for
researchers *also* means Open Access for the lay public.

> Feel free to post anonymous versions of our back-and-forth. I am happy to
> be cited as an NIH scientist. However, you can appreciate that I'd prefer
> not to have my name used since I am not permitted to "lobby" on behalf of
> politically-sensitive issues.

Done, and thanks!

Received on Tue May 09 2006 - 17:45:18 BST

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