Research Reports as Advertisements: An Allegory

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 3 Mar 2007 14:30:24 +0000

On Fri, 2 Mar 2007, Peter Banks wrote:

> On 3/1/07 7:58 PM, "Stevan Harnad" <> wrote:
> > The online age has given birth to a very profound conflict of
> > interest between what is best for (1) the research journal
> > publishing industry, on the one hand, and, on the other hand,
> > what is best for (2) research, researchers, universities,
> > research institutions, research funders, the vast research and
> > development (R&D) industry, and the tax-paying public that funds
> > the research...
> >
> > ...Green OA mandates by research funders and institutions have been
> > vigorously opposed by some (not all) portions of the publishing
> > industry: these opponents have already succeeded in delaying the
> > adoption of Green OA mandates on a number of occasions.

> This "New-Yorker length" essay begins with a flawed premise: that
> research publishing and research are opposed. This certainly will
> come as news to the many senior researchers who work as editors,
> editorial board members, and reviewers in publishing.

When research funders propose, and researchers petition, to mandate OA
self-archiving -- and publishers oppose it -- I think it's more than
reasonable to call that opposition opposition.

> Using similar logic, one might assert that there is very profound
> conflict of interest between what is best for (1) patients in the
> United States, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, what is
> best for (2) the health care industry, including doctors,
> hospitals, health-care insurers, the vast research and
> development (R&D) industry in pharmaceuticals and medical
> devices.

No, there are some superficial economic and ethical similarities there,
but it's the wrong analogy. A better analogy would be the one Larry
Lessig described last year, about the online tax return system
that California provided, and that tax-payers loved, until it was
lobbied off line by the tax-consultant service industry:

    "Lawrence Lessig, Tax-Payer "ReadyReturn" and Research Access"

That analogy is still imperfect, although it captures some of the same
flavor. I suspect that the case of peer-reviewed research publication
is unique. Only a contrived, hypothetical example, verging on
allegory, comes close enough:

Suppose that advertising services traditionally made their money from
*selling* ads (to readers) on paper. Merchants advertising their products
would reluctantly agree to the placement of an access-toll (collected by
the advertising service from readers) between the ads for their products
and their intended customers (for the products the merchant is selling
-- the ones the ad is advertising), because that was the only way to
cover paper production/distribution costs, and at least merchants didn't
have to pay the advertising service for preparing their ads. (Merchants
supply the raw copy, but the ad companies make it look professional,
and then print, distribute, and collect the tolls for accessing it.)

Then the online medium comes along. Merchants still want some help
in making their ads look professional, and they don't mind their ads
continuing to be sold on paper, but they'd like them now to be free
online, to maximize readers and thereby product sales.

So while the ads are still selling well enough on paper to cover the
ad service's costs and provide a fair profit, the merchants put their
ads online for free -- not the raw copy, but the version made to look
professional by the ad service.

The ad services agree to individual merchants giving away the online
version of their ads for free, but they oppose the merchants' association
mandating that all merchants do it, saying it will destroy their (the ad
service industry's) revenues and their ability to cover their costs.

The merchants' association says that as long as paper ad sales are
still covering costs, there is no justification for opposing a mandate
that merchants deposit their ads free online. Only if and when paper
ad sales are no longer sustainable is there any cause for objection,
and then the objection can be met quite simply by merchants paying the
advertising services directly for their value-added contribution.

To make the analogy complete, it remains only to add that the *readers*
of the adds are the merchants themselves: Let's say that they are selling
their products to one another; hence the ads for their products are
addressed to one another too.

That means that if and when the ads are no longer selling on paper
(because the free online version is all that readers want and need), then
the only thing the merchants association needs to do is to redirect the
money saved (from no longer paying for the paper ads): The value added
to the online ad by the ad service is now paid out of the collective
savings from the access-tolls for the (now obsolete) paper ads.

Even the best of analogies, even contrived allegories like this, are not
identities. So let me point out the three remaining flaws in this analogy
before they are used as a counter-analogy. (This, of course, is the Achilles
Heel of all arguments by analogy, and why they are never binding, either
way -- but of course this applies to Peter Banks's original health-care
analogy too!):

(1) In the case of research publishing, the value added by the "ad
service" (the publisher), is peer review, not just "making the ad look
professional" (but the peers review for free; the publisher just manages
the process).

(2) In the case of peer-reviewed publishing, the "ad" is the research
paper itself: there is no other product it is trying to promote and
sell. Getting the "ad" read by as many users as possible is the goal,
and getting its findings used, applied, built upon and cited is the
reward, if the research is found useful and important enough.

(3) Merchants, unlike researchers, see quite clearly the relation between
free consumer access to their ads, and the benefits to the uptake of their
products, hence it is unrealistic in the extreme that merchants would ever
need to be "mandated" to make their advertisements free online, rather
than toll-based. Researchers are a different breed...

    "The Geeks and the Irrational"

> The fact is that there are terrible "market dysfunctions" in US
> health care: about 47 million people have no health insurance at
> all, and we tolerate a system in which the young and healthy are
> allowed to opt out, putting the old and infirm at considerable
> medical and financial risk. Meanwhile, healthcare insurers and
> pharmaceutical firms profit handsomely.

All true. And there's world hunger too, injustice, and global warning.

But all we're trying to do here is to get researchers' adverts freely
accessible online, at long last...

> Were we to take the approach of open access advocates, the
> solution would be simple: government mandated single payer
> systems. However--although they want universal care are willing
> to pay more in taxes for it--most Americans seemingly do not wish
> to rely solely on the government but would prefer some
> private-public system that preserves the strengths of the current
> system in choice, innovation, and quality and yet extends
> coverage and makes it more fair and equitable.

Allow me to decline going further into the details of the substantial
*disanalogy* between health care economics/inequities and the simple
case of making researchers' adverts accessible to all their potential
users, toll-free. The incongruities between the two cases are too gaping
to be ignored.

But if you'd care to argue specifically in terms of the logic and
pragmatics of researchers self-archiving their peer-reviewed research
while subscriptions are still paying all publication costs, I'll be
happy to repeat what I've been chirping for 13+ years now (though, to
mix metaphors, me fingers is getting awful sore trying to get researchers
to move theirs, at long last):

> In other words, the public rejects the kind of simplistic
> patients-vs-the medical industry dichotomy that open access
> advocates put forth with regard to publishing.

As far as I know, OA advocates are just trying to get researchers' ads
online free, not to overturn capitalism...

> The scholarly publishing system IS in need of evolution--and it
> is, in fact, evolving rapidly. The best thing OA advocates could
> do to help guide the evolution is cease this endless and tiresome
> speech-making and declaration-writing and sit down with
> publishers and figure out a better system.

But Peter, unlike health care reform, the tussle here is not between
patients and their health-care providers, it is between the research
community and itself, which includes both the providers and the users
of the adverts -- as well as the funders and employers of the merchants
and their product! And the only issue is making their ads free online.

Hence it is not about "reforming the advertising industry." The
advertising industry may or may not eventually have to adapt and
reform. What is at issue here is self-help: Research funders and employers
mandating that researchers make their ads free online.

Until and unless subscription tolls stop paying for the value added to
those ads (by peer review), the advertising service industry
is out of the loop on the decision by research funders and employers to
make the research they fund freely accessible online.

If and when the free accessibility online ever does make subscriptions
unsustainable as a way of paying for the value added by managing the
peer review service, the (institutional) subscription savings will be
more than enough to pay for the service directly, as a service fee,
instead of as now, as access-tolls.

But that is hypothetical economics, whereas self-archiving mandates are
reachable right now ('sine hypotheses fingere'), by and for the research
community itself; the publishing service industry has absolutely nothing
to say in that decision.

> (If only OA proponents would pour as much passion into helping to
> fix the health care system as they do into upending publishing.
> The current US health care system is by an order of magnitude a
> greater threat to health than is, say, lack of public access to
> Brain Research.)

You know, I agree with you, insofar as OA proponents trying to upend the
publishing system is concerned. That is misdirected effort (Gold Fever)
and it is getting us nowhere fast, insofar as actually generating OA
is concerned. That is why I stalwartly recommend the Green OA movement
instead, ignoring all matters pertaining to publishing and publishing

OA is a direct benefit to research, and is directly reachable, right
now, by the research community (by mandating self-archiving, now). The
rest will take care of itself quite naturally, the publishing community
adapting to what is obviously optimal and inevitable for research, if
and when it ever needs to. Right now, there's nothing the publishing
industry needs to do: what needs more industry is researchers' keystrokes.

And, to dispatch another canard much touted by some blinkered OA zealots:
The primary rationale for OA is researcher access to research reported
by and for researchers, not "public access" (though that too, of course,
comes with the OA territory):

The burning public interest in accessing health-related research does not
scale to the vast majority of the 2.5 million esoteric articles scholars
and scientists publish annually for their fellow specialists. Public
interest is in getting all that research to all of its intended users,
namely, researchers (and not just those who can afford toll-access to
the ads) so they can build upon it, and generate eventual applications,
to the benefit of the public that funds it.

    Strengthening the US Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA)

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum
Received on Sat Mar 03 2007 - 15:15:49 GMT

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