Matt’s post yesterday was one of several posts on this blog that have alluded to Clay Shirky’s now-classic article How We Will Read [archived copy]. Here is the key passage that we keep coming back to:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.

… and of course as SV-POW! itself demonstrates, it doesn’t even need a WordPress install — you can just use the free online service.

This passage has made a lot of people very excited; and a lot other people very unhappy and even angry. There are several reasons for the widely differing responses, but I think one of the important ones is a pun on the word “publish”.

When Shirky uses the word, he is talking  about making something public, available to the world. Which after all is its actual meaning.

But when academics use the word “publish” they usually mean something quite different — they mean the whole process that a research paper goes through between submission and a PDF appearing in a stable location (and in some cases, copies being printed). That process involves many other aspects besides actual publishing — something that in fact Shirky goes straight on to acknowledge:

The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers.

And this is dead on target. Many writers need editors[*], to varying degrees. Fact-checking could be equated with peer-review, which we pretty much all agree is still very important. Most academic publishers do a certain amount of design (although I suspect that in the great majority of cases this is 99% automatic, and probably involves human judgement only in respect of where to position the illustrations).

But due to the historical accident that it used to be difficult and costly to make and distribute copies, all those other tasks — relatively inexpensive ones, back in the days when distribution was the expensive thing — have become bundled with the actual publishing. With hilarious consequences, as they say. You know, “hilarious” in the sense of “tragic, and breathtakingly frustrating”.

funny-sad-truck-head-down

That’s why we’re stuck in an idiot world where, when we need someone to peer-review our manuscript, we usually trade away our copyright in exchange (and not even to the people who provide the expert review). If you stop and think about that for a moment, it makes absolutely no sense. When I recently wrote a book about Doctor Who, I had several people proofread it, but I didn’t hand over copyright to any of them. My ability to distribute copies was not hobbled by having had independent eyes look it over. There is no reason why it should have, and there is no reason why our ability to distribute copies of our academic works should be limited, either.

What we need is the ability to pay a reasonable fee for the services we need —  peer-review, layout design, reference linking — and have the work published freely.

Well, wouldja lookit that. Looks like I just invented Gold Open Access.

Is publishing just a button? Yes. Making things public is now trivial to do, and in fact much of what so-called publishers now do is labouring to prevent things from being public. But we do need other things apart from actual publishing — things that publishers have historically provided, for reasons that used to make sense but no longer do.

Exactly what those things are, and how extensive and important they are, is a discussion for another day, but they do exist.

 

[*] Note: the whole issue of academic publishing is further confused by another pun, this one on the word “editor”. When Shirky refers to editors, he means people who sharpen up an author’s prose — cutting passages, changing word choices, etc. Academic editors very rarely do that, and would be resented if they did. In our world, an “editor” is usually the nominally independent third party who solicits and evaluates peer-reviews, and makes the accept/reject decision. Do we need editors, in this academic sense? We’ll discuss that properly another time, but I’ll say now that I am inclined to think we do.

It’s nearly two years since Alexander Brown wrote Open access: why academic publishers still add value for the Guardian, in which he listed ways that he feels publishers make a contribution. I wrote a lengthy comment in response — long enough that it got truncated at 5000 characters and I had to post a second comment with the tail end. At the time, I intended to turn that comment into an SV-POW! post, but for some reason I never did. Belatedly, here it is.

I’m a bit nonplussed by this article, in which a publisher lists a lot of important services that they claim to provide, nearly all of which turn out to be either not important at all (if not actively harmful) or provided for free by academics. Let’s go through them one by one, and see how they measure up against the average cost to academia of $5333 per paywalled academic paper.

strong, skilled editors to ensure that research can be universally understood

It is authors who make their work understood. As the author of a dozen published papers myself, I’ve certainly never received any help from an editor to make my work more comprehensible. But even if I had, this would have been done by a handling editor, who is a volunteer academic.

to recognise emerging fields and create new journals

Publisher don’t recognise emerging fields, researchers do. The last thing we need is more journals — there are already far more than anyone can keep track of. The more fruitful trend is the consolidation into a smaller number of more generalist journals, with tools for finding papers relevant to each individual researcher’s interest. (PLOS ONE exemplifies this.)

to build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals.

Journal brands are actively harmful to science. Please stop building and maintaining them.

recruitment and management of editorial review boards

Yes — this, at last, is a real cost in return for a real benefit.

coordination of peer review to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record

This is done by volunteer academics at no cost to the publisher.

Yes, editorial board members and reviewers are by and large unpaid. However there are still scores of people whose full time jobs are managing this process for a growing body of scientific literature.

This seems more like confession of inefficiency than a claim of achievement. No doubt Google could double the number of managers they have to look after their engineers; but that would hardly result in doubling their output. The real question here should be why traditional publishers feel they need so many staff to do so little.

helping customers learn how best to find what they need

How does this happen? I have never had a publisher help me to find anything.

rigorous efforts to acquire content

This means sending spam emails inviting researchers to submit to journals. Like everyone else I know, I bin these on receipt. Researchers know what journals they want to publish in, and when they discover new journals it’s by word of mouth from trusted colleagues.

publicise the brilliance of our authors

Please. This never happens. Authors need to publicise their own work, with or without the help of their institutions, but certainly without significant help from publishers. Often the publisher’s most significant contribution to the publicity process is to release a paper prematurely, thus destroying any attempt at co-ordinating press embargoes.

Developing systems and platforms that can cost well into the tens of millions of dollars/pounds/euros

Again, the fact that a publisher spends this much only shows how inefficient they are. There are several free journal-management systems, including Annotum (used by PLOS Currents) and Open Journal Systems (used by 11,500 journals). If publishers don’t use these tools, that’s no reason to charge researchers more.

with the advent of mobile technology, the job becomes exponentially more difficult as we add “whenever they want it” to the list of our customers’ needs

I have no idea what this means. Any open-access journal’s article are always free “whenever they want it”, whatever device someone is reading on.

While the dissemination of research may not require ink and paper like it used to, distribution remains a very real cost

Yes. To pick a well-known large-scale example, it costs arXiv about $7 per paper to accept, host, archive and serve each of its papers indefinitely. A bit less than $5333, admittedly.

Also included in these activities are archive projects like the Springer Book Archives, a massive undertaking to digitise more than 150 years of previously unavailable titles

This is indeed a valuable programme. But it has nothing to do with ongoing publishing, and is a red herring in the current discussion.

for OA authors Springer deposits a researcher’s work into the institutional repositories these scientists are often required to use, helping to provide further access to scholarly works.

This is good. It saves the author a good fifteen minutes. £5333 well spent!

It is hard to imagine how anyone with an internet connection could do this with the speed, efficiency and added value with which publishers operate

On the contrary: it’s hard to understand how publishers manage to do it so inefficiently.

I just find all this baffling. Any researcher who has actually been through the process of publication knows that it is researchers who do all the significiant work: not only the research, but the writing, the preparation of illustrations, the editorial process, the peer-reviewing, the copy-editing, and increasingly even the typesetting. Hosting, archiving and replication can be done for $7 per paper. So I still don’t see where the publishers are adding any value that is of value to the academy.

Last night, I did a Twitter interview with Open Access Nigeria (@OpenAccessNG). To make it easy to follow in real time, I created a list whose only members were me and OA Nigeria. But because Twitter lists posts in reverse order, and because each individual tweet is encumbered with so much chrome, it’s rather an awkward way to read a sustained argument.

So here is a transcript of those tweets, only lightly edited. They are in bold; I am in regular font. Enjoy!

So @MikeTaylor Good evening and welcome. Twitterville wants to meet you briefly. Who is Mike Taylor?

In real life, I’m a computer programmer with Index Data, a tiny software house that does a lot of open-source programming. But I’m also a researching scientist — a vertebrate palaeontologist, working on sauropods: the biggest and best of the dinosaurs. Somehow I fit that second career into my evenings and weekends, thanks to a very understanding wife (Hi, Fiona!) …

As of a few years ago, I publish all my dinosaur research open access, and I regret ever having let any of my work go behind paywalls. You can find all my papers online, and read much more about them on the blog that I co-write with Matt Wedel. That blog is called Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, or SV-POW! for short, and it is itself open access (CC By)

Sorry for the long answer, I will try to be more concise with the next question!

Ok @MikeTaylor That’s just great! There’s been so much noise around twitter, the orange colour featuring prominently. What’s that about?

Actually, to be honest, I’m not really up to speed with open-access week (which I think is what the orange is all about). I found a while back that I just can’t be properly on Twitter, otherwise it eats all my time. So these days, rather selfishly, I mostly only use Twitter to say things and get into conversations, rather than to monitor the zeitgeist.

That said, orange got established as the colour of open access a long time ago, and is enshrined in the logo:

OAlogo

In the end I suppose open-access week doesn’t hit my buttons too strongly because I am trying to lead a whole open-access life.

… uh, but thanks for inviting me to do this interview, anyway! :-)

You’re welcome @MikeTaylor. So what is open access?

Open Access, or OA, is the term describing a concept so simple and obvious and naturally right that you’d hardly think it needs a name. It just means making the results of research freely available on the Internet for anyone to read, remix and otherwise use.

You might reasonably ask, why is there any other kind of published research other than open access? And the only answer is, historical inertia. For reasons that seemed to make some kind of sense at the time, the whole research ecosystem has got itself locked into this crazy equilibrium where most published research is locked up where almost no-one can see it, and where even the tiny proportion of people who can read published works aren’t allowed to make much use of them.

So to answer the question: the open-access movement is an attempt to undo this damage, and to make the research world sane.

Are there factors perpetuating this inertia you talked about?

Oh, so many factors perpetuting the inertia. Let me list a few …

  1. Old-school researchers who grew up when it was hard to find papers, and don’t see why young whippersnappers should have it easier
  2. Old-school publishers who have got used to making profits of 30-40% turnover (they get content donated to them, then charge subscriptions)
  3. University administrators who make hiring/promotion/tenure decisions based on which old-school journals a researcher’s papers are in.
  4. Feeble politicians who think it’s important to keep the publishing sector profitable, even at the expense of crippling research.

I’m sure there are plenty of others who I’ve overlooked for the moment. I always say regarding this that there’s plenty of blame to go round.

(This, by the way, is why I called the current situation an equilibrium. It’s stable. Won’t fix itself, and needs to be disturbed.)

So these publishers who put scholarly articles behind paywalls online, do they pay the researchers for publishing their work?

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Oh, sorry, please excuse me while I wipe the tears of mirth from my eyes. An academic publisher? Paying an author? Hahahahaha! No.

Not only do academic publishers never pay authors, in many cases they also levy page charges — that is, they charge the authors. So they get paid once by the author, in page-charges, then again by all the libraries that subscribe to read the paywalled papers. Which of course is why, even with their gross inefficiencies, they’re able to make these 30-40% profit margins.

So @MikeTaylor why do many researchers continue to take their work to these restricted access publishers and what can we do about it?

There are a few reasons that play into this together …

Part of it is just habit, especially among more senior researchers who’ve been using the same journals for 20 or 30 years.

But what’s more pernicious is the tendency of academics — and even worse, academic administrators — to evaluate research not by its inherent quality, but by the prestige of the journal that publishes it. It’s just horrifyingly easy for administrators to say “He got three papers out that year, but they were in journals with low Impact Factors.”

Which is wrong-headed on so many levels.

First of all, they should be looking at the work itself, and making an assessment of how well it was done: rigour, clarity, reproducibility. But it’s much easier just to count citations, and say “Oh, this has been cited 50 times, it must be good!” But of course papers are not always cited because they’re good. Sometimes they’re cited precisely because they’re so bad! For example, no doubt the profoundly flawed Arsenic Life paper has been cited many times — by people pointing out its numerous problems.

But wait, it’s much worse than that! Lazy or impatient administrators won’t count how many times a paper has been cited. Instead they will use a surrogate: the Impact Factor (IF), which is a measure not of papers but of journals.

Roughly, the IF measures the average number of citations received by papers that are published in the journal. So at best it’s a measure of journal quality (and a terrible measure of that, too, but let’s not get into that). The real damage is done when the IF is used to evaluate not journals, but the papers that appear in them.

And because that’s so widespread, researchers are often desperate to get their work into journals that have high IFs, even if they’re not OA. So we have an idiot situation where a selfish, rational researcher is best able to advance her career by doing the worst thing for science.

(And BTW, counter-intuitively, the number of citations an individual paper receives is NOT correlated significantly with the journal’s IF. Bjorn Brembs has discussed this extensively, and also shows that IF is correlated with retraction rate. So in many respects the high-IF journals are actually the worst ones you can possibly publish your work in. Yet people feel obliged to.)

*pant* *pant* *pant* OK, I had better stop answering this question, and move on to the next. Sorry to go on so long. (But really! :-) )

This is actually all so enlightening. You just criticised Citation Index along with Impact Factor but OA advocates tend to hold up a higher Citation Index as a reason to publish Open Access. What do you think regarding this?

I think that’s realpolitik. To be honest, I am also kind of pleased that the PLOS journals have pretty good Impact Factors: not because I think the IFs mean anything, but because they make those journals attractive to old-school researchers.

In the same way, it is a well-established fact that open-access articles tend to be cited more than paywalled ones — a lot more, in fact. So in trying to bring people across into the OA world, it makes sense to use helpful facts like these. But they’re not where the focus is.

But the last thing to say about this is that even though raw citation-count is a bad measure of a paper’s quality, it is at least badly measuring the right thing. Evaluating a paper by its journal’s IF is like judging someone by the label of their clothes

So @MikeTaylor Institutions need to stop evaluating research papers based on where they are published? Do you know of any doing it right?

I’m afraid I really don’t know. I’m not privy to how individual institution do things.

All I know is, in some countries (e.g. France) abuse of IF is much more strongly institutionalised. It’s tough for French researchers

What are the various ways researchers can make their work available for free online?

Brilliant, very practical question! There are three main answers. (Sorry, this might go on a bit …)

First, you can post your papers on preprint servers. The best known one is arXiv, which now accepts papers from quite a broad subject range. For example, a preprint of one of the papers I co-wrote with Matt Wedel is freely available on arXiv. There are various preprint servers, including arXiv for physical sciences, bioRxiv, PeerJ Preprints, and SSRN (Social Science Research Network).

You can put your work on a preprint server whatever your subsequent plans are for it — even if (for some reason) it’s going to a paywall. There are only a very few journals left that follow the “Ingelfinger rule” and refuse to publish papers that have been preprinted.

So preprints are option #1. Number 2 is Gold Open Access: publishing in an open-access journal such as PLOS ONE, a BMC journal or eLife. As a matter of principle, I now publish all my own work in open-access journals, and I know lots of other people who do the same — ranging from amateurs like me, via early-career researchers like Erin McKiernan, to lab-leading senior researchers like Michael Eisen.

There are two potential downsides to publishing in an OA journal. One, we already discussed: the OA journals in your field may not be be the most prestigious, so depending on how stupid your administrators are you could be penalised for using an OA journal, even though your work gets cited more than it would have done in a paywalled journal.

The other potential reason some people might want to avoid using an OA journal is because of Article Processing Charges (APC). Because OA publishers have no subscription revenue, one common business model is to charge authors an APC for publishing services instead. APCs can vary wildly, from $0 up to $5000 in the most extreme case (a not-very-open journal run by the AAAS), so they can be offputting.

There are three things to say about APCs.

First, remember that lots of paywalled journals demand page charges, which can cost more!

But second, please know that more than half of all OA journals actually charge no APC at all. They run on different models. For example in my own field, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palaeontologia Electronica are well respected OA journals that charge no APC.

And the third thing is APC waivers. These are very common. Most OA publishers have it as a stated goal that no-one should be prevented from publishing with them by lack of funds for APCs. So for example PLOS will nearly always give a waiver when requested. Likewise Ubiquity, and others.

So there are lots of ways to have your work appear in an OA journal without paying for it to be there.

Anyway, all that was about the second way to make your work open access. #1 was preprints, #2 is “Gold OA” in OA journals …

And #3 is “Green OA”, which means publishing in a paywalled journal, but depositing a copy of the paper in an open repository. The details of how this works can be a bit complicated: different paywall-based publishers allow you to do different things, e.g. it’s common to say “you can deposit your peer-reviewed, accepted but unformatted manuscript, but only after 12 months“.

Opinions vary as to how fair or enforceable such rules are. Some OA advocates prefer Green. Others (including me) prefer Gold. Both are good.

See this SV-POW! post on the practicalities of negotiating Green OA if you’re publishing behind a paywall.

So to summarise:

  1. Deposit preprints
  2. Publish in an OA journal (getting a fee waiver if needed)
  3. Deposit postprints

I’ve written absolutely shedloads on these subjects over the last few years, including this introductory batch. If you only read one of my pieces about OA, make it this one: The parable of the farmers & the Teleporting Duplicator.

Last question – Do restricted access publishers pay remuneration to peer reviewers?

I know of no publisher that pays peer reviewers. But actually I am happy with that. Peer-review is a service to the community. As soon as you encumber it with direct financial incentives, things get more complicated and there’s more potential for Conflict of interest. What I do is, I only perform peer-reviews for open-access journals. And I am happy to put that time/effort in knowing the world will benefit.

And so we bring this edition to a close. We say a big thanks to our special guest @MikeTaylor who’s been totally awesome and instructive.

Thanks, it’s been a privilege.

A couple of weeks ago, more than hundred scientists sent an open letter to the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) about their new open-access journal Science Advances, which is deficient in various ways — not least the absurdly inflated article-processing charge.

Today I learn from email that there has finally been a response — of sorts. Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt had a long phone-call with Jon Tennant — one of the hundred-plus authors/co-signers. All we know about that call is (and I quote from Jon’s email account) “it became quite apparent that we would have to agree to disagree on many points”.

All I want to say is this. When a hundred scientists co-sign an open letter, it is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE for the response to take the form of a private telephone call with one of those authors.

Come on, AAAS. This is all about openness. Let’s see an open response: a substantive, non-patronising one which addresses the actual points made in the original letter.

Meanwhile, you may like to read this article at The New StatesmanScientists criticise new “open access” journal which limits research-sharing with copyright. In finishes on this very clear note, courtesy of Jon Tennant:

The AAAS should be a shining beacon within the academic world for progression of science. If this is their best shot at that, it’s an absolute disaster at the start on all levels. What publishers need to remember is that the academic community is not here to serve them – it is the other way around.

 

[NOTE: see the updates at the bottom. In summary, there’s nothing to see here and I was mistaken in posting this in the first place.]

Elsevier’s War On Access was stepped up last year when they started contacting individual universities to prevent them from letting the world read their research. Today I got this message from a librarian at my university:

babys-first-takedown

The irony that this was sent from the Library’s “Open Access Team” is not lost on me. Added bonus irony: this takedown notification pertains to an article about how openness combats mistrust and secrecy. Well. You’d almost think NPG wants mistrust and secrecy, wouldn’t you?

It’s sometimes been noted that by talking so much about Elsevier on this blog, we can appear to be giving other barrier-based publishers a free ride. If we give that impression, it’s not deliberate. By initiating this takedown, Nature Publishing Group has self-identified itself as yet another so-called academic publisher that is in fact an enemy of science.

So what next? Anyone who wants a PDF of this (completely trivial) letter can still get one very easily from my own web-site, so in that sense no damage has been done. But it does leave me wondering what the point of the Institutional Repository is. In practice it seems to be a single point of weakness allowing “publishers” to do the maximum amount of damage with a single attack.

But part of me thinks the thing to do is take the accepted manuscript and format it myself in the exact same way as Nature did, and post that. Just because I can. Because the bottom line is that typesetting is the only actual service they offered Andy, Matt and me in exchange for our right to show our work to the world, and that is a trivial service.

The other outcome is that this hardens my determination never to send anything to Nature again. Now it’s not like my research program is likely to turn up tabloid-friendly results anyway, so this is a bit of a null resolution. But you never know: if I happen to stumble across sauropod feather impressions in an overlooked Wealden fossil, then that discovery is going straight to PeerJ, PLOS, BMC, F1000 Research, Frontiers or another open-access publisher, just like all my other work.

And that’s sheer self-interest at work there, just as much as it’s a statement. I will not let my best work be hidden from the world. Why would anyone?

Let’s finish with another outing for this meme-ready image.

Publishers ... You're doing it wrong

Update (four hours later)

David Mainwaring (on Twitter) and James Bisset (in the comment below) both pointed out that I’ve not seen an actual takedown request from NPG — just the takedown notification from my own library. I assumed that the library were doing this in response to hassle from NPG, but of course it’s possible that my own library’s Open Access Team is unilaterally trying to prevent access to the work of its university’s researchers.

I’ve emailed Lyn Duffy to ask for clarification. In the mean time, NPG’s Grace Baynes has tweeted:

So it looks like this may be even more bizarre than I’d realised.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Update 2 (two more hours later)

OK, consensus is that I read this completely wrong. Matt’s comment below says it best:

I have always understood institutional repositories to be repositories for author’s accepted manuscripts, not for publisher’s formatted versions of record. By that understanding, if you upload the latter, you’re breaking the rules, and basically pitting the repository against the publisher.

Which is, at least, not a nice thing to do to the respository.

So the conclusion is: I was wrong, and there’s nothing to see here apart from me being embarrassed. That’s why I’ve struck through much of the text above. (We try not to actually delete things from this blog, to avoid giving a false history.)

My apologies to Lyn Duffy, who was just doing her job.

Update 3 (another hour later)

This just in from Lyn Duffy, confirming that, as David and James guessed, NPG did not send a takedown notice:

Dear Mike,

This PDF was removed as part of the standard validation work of the Open Access team and was not prompted by communication from Nature Publishing. We validate every full-text document that is uploaded to Pure to make sure that the publisher permits posting of that version in an institutional repository. Only after validation are full-text documents made publicly available.

In this case we were following the regulations as stated in the Nature Publishing policy about confidentiality and pre-publicity. The policy says, ‘The published version — copyedited and in Nature journal format — may not be posted on any website or preprint server’ (http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/confidentiality.html). In the information for authors about ‘Other material published in Nature’ it says, ‘All articles for all sections of Nature are considered according to our usual conditions of publication’ (http://www.nature.com/nature/authors/gta/others.html#correspondence). We took this to mean that material such as correspondence have the same posting restrictions as other material published by Nature Publishing.

If we have made the wrong decision in this case and you do have permission from Nature Publishing to make the PDF of your correspondence publicly available via an institutional repository, we can upload the PDF to the record.

Kind regards,
Open Access Team

Appendix

Here’s the text of the original notification email so search-engines can pick it up. (If you read the screen-grab above, you can ignore this.)

University of Bristol — Pure

Lyn Duffy has added a comment

Sharing: public databases combat mistrust and secrecy
Farke, A. A., Taylor, M. P. & Wedel, M. J. 22 Oct 2009 In : Nature. 461, 7267, p. 1053

Research output: Contribution to journal › Article

Lyn Duffy has added a comment 7/05/14 10:23

Dear Michael, Apologies for the delay in checking your record. It appears that the document you have uploaded alongside this record is the publishers own version/PDF and making this version openly accessible in Pure is prohibited by the publisher, as a result the document has been removed from the record. In this particular instance the publisher would allow you to make accessible the postprint version of the paper, i.e., the article in the form accepted for publication in the journal following the process of peer review. Please upload an acceptable version of the paper if you have one. If you have any questions about this please get back to us, or send an email directly to open-access@bristol.ac.uk Kind regards, Lyn Duffy Library Open Access Team.

Eminent British mathematician Tim Gowers has written an epic post on his attempts to get universities to disclose how much they pay for their Elsevier subscriptions. There is a lot of fascinating anecdote in there, and a shedload of important data — it’s very well worth a read.

But here is the part that staggered me most. Gowers wrote to (among others) Queen’s University Belfast, requesting the subscription cost under Freedom of Information rules. The reply was from Amanda Aicken, Information Compliance Unit (and by the way was addressed to Mr. Gowers, but let it pass). It refused to disclose the price on the basis that:

The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with […] the University.

Now that paragraph is exactly equivalent to:

The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a positive effect on the University’s future negotiating position with Elsevier.

Wouldn’t a decent university administrator think that’s a good thing?

 

In discussion of Samuel Gershman’s rather good piece The Exploitative Economics Of Academic Publishing, I got into this discusson on Twitter with David Mainwaring (who is usually one of the more interesting legacy-publisher representatives on these issues) and Daniel Allingon (who I don’t know at all).

I’ll need to give a bit of background before I reach the key part of that discussion, so here goes. I said that one of David’s comments was a patronising evasion, and that I expected better of him, and also that it was an explicit refusal to engage. David’s response was interesting:

First, to clear up the first half, I wasn’t at all saying that David hasn’t engaged in OA, but that in this instance he’d rejected engagement — and that his previous record of engaging with the issues was why I’d said “I expect better from you” at the outset.

Now with all that he-said-she-said out of the way, here’s the point I want to make.

David’s tweet quoted above makes a very common but insidious assumption: that a “nuanced” argument is intrinsically preferable to a simple one. And we absolutely mustn’t accept that.

We see this idea again and again: open-access advocates are criticised for not being nuanced, with the implication that this equates with not being right. But the right position is not always nuanced. Recruiting Godwin to the cause of a reductio ad absurdum, we can see this by asking the question “was Hitler right to commit genocide?” If you say “no”, then I will agree with you; I won’t criticise your position for lacking nuance. In this argument, nuance is superfluous.

[Tedious but probably necessary disclaimer: no, I am not saying that paywall-encumbered publishing is morally equivalent to genocide. I am saying that the example of genocide shows that nuanced positions are not always correct, and that therefore it’s wrong to assume a priori that a nuanced position regarding paywalls is correct. Maybe a nuanced position is correct: but that is something to be demonstrated, not assumed.]

So when David says “What I do hold to is that a rounded view, nuance, w/ever you call it, is important”, I have to disagree. What matters is to be right, not nuanced. Again, sometimes the right position is nuanced, but there’s no reason to assume that from the get-go.

Here’s why this is dangerous: a nuanced, balanced, rounded position sounds so grown up. And by contrast, a straightforward, black-and-white one sounds so adolescent. You know, a straightforward, black-and-white position like “genocide is bad”. The idea of nuance plays on our desire to be respected. It sounds so flattering.

We mustn’t fall for this. Our job is to figure out what’s true, not what sounds grown-up.

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