Open access books
February 1, 2013
Do you consider it immoral to publish scientific results in a book, since readers must pay publishers to gain access to that material? If not, can you lay out your thoughts on the relative morality of pay-to-access journal articles, conference proceedings, and books?
That’s an interesting question, Because I’ve not really thought about it at all, I am tempted to sidestep and say “I’m only writing about journal articles”. But that would be a bit cowardly, so here are some opening thoughts.
1. There is no fundamental reason why book chapters should not also be freely available online. (Many of the O’Reilly books are like this, and they do very well commercially.)
2. Book chapters have a tendency to be more reviewish and less researchy than journal articles (though with many exceptions in both directions). Perhaps a case can be made that for that reason barriers to access are less egregious.
3. Some books are crazily expensive — notably, for me, the Geological Society volume that contains my history-of-sauropod-research paper ($190 at amazon.com, £95 at amazon.co.uk). Would I have let them have my paper if I’d known that essentially nobody would be able to afford the volume? Probably not. (And that’s before we even get into how they lied about owning the copyright.)
4. When you buy a book, you get a Thing, which had a non-trivial cost to produce; whereas when you buy access to an online paper, you don’t get a Thing, and you’re paying (a lot) for something whose marginal cost is literally too close to zero to be measured. For that reason I feel better about buying books. I can’t (at least yet) explain or defend that, but there it is.
5. Leaving aside morals for the moment, it seems to me that it’s in every researcher’s interest to have their work as widely available as possible. Having it only in an expensive printed book certainly doesn’t meet that need. (There is already excellent evidence that allowing your work to go into an edited volume is about the most effective way of burying it.)
Putting it all together, I don’t think I would let my work go into a paper book again unless the material was also freely available by some form of Green OA (as is in fact the case with my chapter of the Geol Soc history book). [But, Mike, don't you want to support the valuable work of the Geological Society? Yes I do, Fictional Interlocutor, but not at the expense of hiding research.]
The Right Way to do this is as follows: take each accepted chapter of an edited-volume-to-be, publish them all together as a “special issue” of an open-access journal; and also make a nice printed-and-bound hardback book version available for those who want it. (My experience is that plenty of people will. After all, I have PDFs of all the chapters from, say, the Tidwell & Carpenter sauropod volume, but that didn’t stop me from buying the book as well.)
I’d welcome thoughts on this issue.