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All the Pretty Ponies
Evan Butterfield
MAR 06, 2013 13:52 PM
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So I was having lunch with my friend Doris last Saturday, and the conversation wandered around, as it does, to publishing. Now, it’s important for you to know here that Doris is not a computer scientist (or particularly scholarly, although she’s bright enough) and does not have a technical or publishing background.  She’s younger than I am (well, practically everyone is these days) but hardly a child; she’s a professional, a voracious reader, and is possibly over-fond of her cat.

Anyway, at some point (it’s possible that margaritas were involved in this lunch) I got up on my soapbox, as I do, and made my usual speech about Open Access. I covered a number of my favorite salient arguments: the unfairness of holding publicly-funded data behind a private paywall;  the economics of modern publishing; The Ever-Popular iTunes Analogy®; the role of scholarly research; and the Finch Report.

(Doris may have moved on to a second margarita by this point, but I was on a roll.)

In its final report on open access, published in June of 2012, the U.K.’s Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, led by Dame Janet Finch, CBE (“the Finch Report”) made this observation:

“The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.”

Never one to run from a challenge (and being something of a contrary sort), my initial knee-jerk reaction was that I would answer any principle that anyone said was “unanswerable.”

But on reflection, I determined that I can’t. It is, in fact, an unanswerable principle that if the public pays for research, then the public is entitled to have access to it.

This is where Doris looked up from her paella de pollo and gave me The Look. (“The Look” is an expression she gets on her face whenever one of her friends, and we are legion, says something she finds profoundly stupid, which we apparently do with some regularity.)

“Seriously?” She asked. “Why would the public care about reading the kind of stuff you guys publish?” (In point of fact she did not use the word “stuff” in that sentence. Neither did she use the phrase “peer-reviewed technical research content of the highest quality.”)

Now, fueled by multiple frozen margaritas and a heavy dollop of crema y queso, it was Doris’s turn on the soapbox. I’m paraphrasing the next fifteen minutes below.

“I mean, honestly, Evan: I’ve seen what you guys publish and I can personally assure you that nobody in “the public” has any interest in having access to it, open or otherwise. I think it’s safe to assume that that’s true for research done by the National Institutes of Health, whoever they are: I’ll wait for the LA Times to do the Cliff’s Notes version in plain English. I don’t have any interest in reading “primary research” for myself.  Or how someone replicated the primary research. Or a survey of the research. Or anything with formulas and technical jargon and algorithms. You can put that behind your paywall where the sun never shines, as far as I’m concerned. All your peer-reviewed stuff is peer-reviewed for a reason: They’re the only ones who can read it. Just leave “the public” out of it. We have Entertainment Weekly and that’s more reading than most people do.”

“It’s like my niece. She’s constantly whining to her parents that she wants a pony. Who doesn’t want a pony? Ponies are cute and sweet and fuzzy and pretty and full of rainbows. Oh wait, no: ponies quickly turn into a thousand pounds of horse, and they make mountains of manure and cost a bazillion dollars to feed and house and you have to hire people to take care of them. It’s the idea of a pretty pony that she’s selling; the reality of a pony is it grows up to be a horse and it’s hard and complicated and not pretty and not really what she wants. Same thing with you and your open access: You talk like it’s some sort of great service to humanity or something, but underneath that pretty wrapping it’s really just a few people who need certain information and don’t want to have to pay for it.”

I don’t think Doris is being entirely fair, but as many of Doris’s rants do, this one got me thinking in a slightly different way than I had before.

Well, that’s not exactly true, because I’d already sort of thought that way. About a year ago, I was visiting one of our conferences, and asked the chair of the steering committee how he felt about the open access debates taking place in academic publishing.

“It’s not my issue,” he said. “I already have open access. My university subscribes to several digital libraries and content repositories. I can get anything I want, free, any time. I suspect anyone who really needs the material is in the same boat.”

Now, before I am pilloried by OA advocates, let me be clear: I personally and professionally support open access, and I support the strategies and processes that are being put into place by publishers, repositories, governments, and institutions to encourage the broader dissemination of scholarly research. I drank the OA Kool-Aid; they ran OA up the flagpole and I saluted. The OA train has left the station and I’m on board.

And yet I can’t help but wonder if Doris may be partially correct: maybe there’s something of a pony-thing going on here. If OA is the answer, what, exactly, was the question? Who is not getting access to the scholarly research they need? The much-maligned repositories where the “closed access” content lives are easily accessible through public and private institutions that subscribe to them, underwriting access costs not only for their faculty, staff, and employees, but often for anyone who happens to be on campus. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m sure someone  will), but my guess is that most researchers are not rogue, solo-operators working independently out of their garages, unaffiliated with any degree-granting or for-profit or comfortably-endowed academic institution or corporation. If the problem is that some institutions can’t afford subscriptions to the repositories, then maybe that’s the problem in need of fixing.

Most researchers and scholars who can both understand and use the results that flow from publicly-funded research have, as my steering committee professor said, free and easy access to it. If the people working in the institutions who need the data have access to it through existing channels, where exactly is the necessity to implement vast-reaching changes in the scholarly publishing model?

The bottom line question, I think, comes down—as it so often does— to money: Why should one entity (i.e., a publisher) profit from the intellectual property of another (i.e., an author)? That’s been the accepted model since Guttenberg, and probably before. But just because something’s old and traditional doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t, be changed. By the same token it doesn’t mean that change has to happen, or has to be revolutionary.

In the past, publishers were pretty much the only bridge between an author and readers. That was true at a time when all content was acquired and edited and printed and produced and archived and distributed by a limited number of publishing companies.  The Internet, obviously, changed that by eliminating the middleman, as it were: authors could directly access their readership. In scholarly publishing in particular, this raised a question about the role played by publishers. Now instead of a bridge between author and reader, publishers and their repositories are increasingly viewed as a meddlesome intermediary, intent on restricting access to content and controlling the interaction between authors and readers. The nature, extent, and value of the “value-add” provided by the publisher is a subject of debate.

In scholarly publishing, there is also the issue of what to do when public money is used to fund the activities authors wrote about: If the public is paying for the activity, the argument goes, then the public should have the right to freely access the result. It’s the Finch Report’s unanswerable principle. Sounds good to me, too.

But who, exactly, is “the public” here? It’s all well and good to talk about The Public’s right to know, The Public’s right to access taxpayer-funded research, The Public’s interest in publicly-funded research. Oppose these noble sentiments about The Public and you might as well be expressing distaste for babies nestled in flower baskets or kittens curled up in front of a fireplace. But what, exactly, is The Public really, in reality, supposed to do with all this access?

I suspect when we talk about “The Public” in this context, we’re really talking about a subset of what that phrase would normally imply. We’re not talking about “The Public” in the sense of the folks riding the bus to their jobs at Wal-Mart, or my retired dad, or my friend Doris—although their taxes paid as much as anyone (and more than some) to underwrite publicly-funded scientific research. Frankly, and not to be elitist here, that Public doesn’t care and isn’t  interested. That is, unless and until the eventual application of that research impacts their daily lives in a clear and tangible way. Even then, reports on the research and experimentation and pure science underlying the Angry Birds app they’ve just downloaded, or the science that makes their GPS capable of locating the nearest Starbucks, is just not something they’re going to want to read about.

So by “The Public,” what we really mean is a relatively tiny subset: a group of highly intelligent, highly educated, highly dedicated and driven individuals whose work in industrial and academic settings demands that they have access to peer reviewed scholarly content, much of which is derived from publicly funded research work by other highly intelligent, highly educated individuals. I haven’t done the math, but I suspect that in terms of the global population, it’s not a large group.

Of course, the fact that we’re talking about a tiny, elite percentage of the global population doesn’t make open access unimportant, or discount its desirability in any way. That small subset is responsible for the time-consuming, often tedious, always demanding work that improves—and frequently saves—lives. But maybe we shouldn’t be quite so filled with flag-waving self-righteousness when talking about OA serving the interests of The Public.

The Public pays for a lot of things that are publicly-funded through taxes that The Public does not have free access to. Tollways come to mind, and state universities, and community colleges, and NEA-funded artistic performances. MIRVed InterContinental Ballistic Missiles. If the fact that my dollars fund scientific research means I have an inalienable right to freely access the results of that research, then where the heck is the aircraft carrier I paid for?

If we’re not going there, and the argumentum ad absurdum is called fallacious for a reason, then let’s start by just saying what we mean when we talk about OA. We don’t necessarily think everything should be free to everyone in the whole wide world; we just want some specific information to be accessible without limitation to the people who actually need it. That’s the unanswerable principle underlying open access. We don’t really want a pony; we just want a reasonable way to get from here to there. 

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