Authors versus publishers
September 30, 2011
OTOH, Aaronson and O’Reilly wrote their pieces for the same reason I’m writing this one: some things are not blinding obvious to everyone. And sometimes the situation makes me mad enough to take a swing. So here goes.
Duty Versus Selfishness
Aaronson writes, “the most important idea in the The Access Principle is that scholars have a duty to make their work available, not only to their colleagues, but ideally to anyone who wants it.”
Now, I agree with this, totally; it’s basically the underpinning for the entire OA movement. But you don’t need to invoke a sense of duty to encourage researchers to make their work universally available. In fact, you don’t need to invoke any higher motive at all. Pure selfishness will do.
Here’s the deal: if you’re a publishing scientist, then once a paper is out the door the only ways in which you should care about it are (1) hoping it’s not discredited, and (2) hoping that it is read as widely as possible. Most of the formulae used to calculate impact factors, the H-index, and so on, don’t pay any attention to whether the citation is coming from inside your field or not (though a few are field-specific). And if you can get a group of bird feather biomechanists or insect development people interested in your work, at a minimum you’ll have a new citation cash cow, and possibly opportunities for collaboration.
Crucially, you want students to be able to get hold of your papers, because those students are going to be tomorrow’s publishing scientists, and if you hook ’em early you’ll have another source of inflowing citations, potential collaborations, and possibly fawningly positive peer reviews (remember, we’re temporarily setting aside higher motives). But students are very good at maximizing return for effort invested (or, as some would have it, “lazy”), and if they find Dr. O. Penn Akzess’s papers before they find yours–or if they are able download her papers for free while yours are locked behind a paywall–you get nothing.
It’s not just students, though, or people in other fields. One of your colleagues might be working on a manuscript at home, and he needs a boilerplate citation on wasp-farming in a particular paragraph. He has your 2007 paper on insect husbandry in mind, but after a brief search it turns out that the PDF is on the computer in his office, and he can’t get access to the online version without going through some complicated process involving proxy servers and other such folderol. But, hey, look, there’s Dr. Akzess’s (2008) paper on alternative agriculture on PLoS ONE, which will serve just fine for this non-critical citation. Guess who gets cited, and who gets zip?
And if you’re in academia, getting and keeping a job means that your work needs to be well-regarded in a way that the administrative bean-counters can understand (i.e., cited, or the subject of high-profile publicity).
So even if you’re a completely selfish bastard who cares about nothing other than ruthless self-advancement, it’s to your advantage to have all of your work immediately available to anyone who wants it with a minimum of hassle. You may also have other, higher motives for desiring the same outcome, but it’s all the same in the end: the primary interest of authors is to have their work read by others. As many others as possible, with a minimum of fuss.
You’re Not Helping
The primary interest of non-OA publishers is to get paid. Forget whatever crap they put in their brochures and mission statements about serving the broader community and performing a vital service for science. They’re all businesses, almost all corporations, they have an ardent desire and a legal mandate to maximize profits, and their PR departments will say anything at all to help that happen, even outright lies.
Non-OA publishers get paid by subscribers and the unfortunates who actually pony up $30 per article online (because they haven’t read Tutorial 9, don’t have a public library nearby for ILL, or absolutely must have the PDF right this minute and have no other options). In other words, they don’t want anyone to be able to read your work who hasn’t paid. Now that the problem of publishing has been solved, and infinitely many zero-cost perfect copies can be immediately distributed worldwide for free, one of the primary goals of non-OA publishers is to prevent people from reading your work. Their “publishing” your work isn’t helping you, it’s hurting you. Their imprimatur might look nice on your CV or be a source of bragging rights among your colleagues, and you might decide that the value of the imprimatur is greater than the value of having your work easily available to most of the rest of the planet. But the publisher isn’t helping you get your work read any more widely than you could on your own.* All you need for that is a PDF and an internet connection (a blog helps, and that’s free, too).
* I know that a zillion people have access to Nature ‘n Science. And the number of them outside your narrow field who will actually read your paper on wasp farming is probably comparable to the number of N&S papers on buckytubes and hadrons that you actually read: zilch. Many more people who actually care about your field will read your N&S paper after one of their friends with access sends it to them, but those that are actually going to read it under those circumstances wouldn’t care if it was published in The Journal of Small, Boring Fossils. And if it was in The OA JSBF, they wouldn’t have to bug their friends for copies.
Let’s figure out how the non-OA publishers are “helping” you.
- Printing, binding, and shipping hard copies of your work to those academic libraries that can afford their outrageous prices. Analysis: so Twen-Cen. Wake up and smell the internet. That tree you’re reading could be out there sequestering carbon. Not helping.
- Putting your work online behind their paywall. Analysis: great, they’ve made it available to subscribers, who already had it, and a handful of unfortunates who couldn’t or wouldn’t get it any other way (Tutorial 9, ILL, etc.)–and keeping everyone else out. Not helping.
- Giving you a PDF to freely distribute to colleagues who write to ask for it. Analysis: It’s 2011. Providing the author with a PDF of their own work isn’t a service, it’s a utility: the only time you should even have to think about this is when it’s not working. Making PDFs is actually easier and vastly cheaper than making print copies–OpenOffice does it natively, for free–so if your favorite journal isn’t doing it, go elsewhere until they extract their heads from their backsides. Anyway, this is something you can do for yourself with the accepted manuscript. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.
- Giving you a limited number of PDF reprints. No, really, you read that right. Here’s how the Geological Society words it: “We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish.” The idea apparently being that you can send the PDF to colleagues, but only 20 times (19, I guess, if you want to keep one for yourself). The words simply don’t make any sense. It’s as if the session moderator told you were allowed to use vowel sounds in your talk, but you couldn’t use any one more than 20 times. You might go along with it just for the humor potential, but you, the moderator, and the audience would all know that it was a highly artificial game, whose strictures you could step outside of at any moment. (The tragedy of academic publishing is that the players have been tricked into thinking that they are pawns.) Not helping, or even making sense.
- Stopping bad people from pirating your content, by tracking down unauthorized copies. Yes, there is a “service” for this (thanks to Andy Farke for the heads up). But wait–in case you’re waiting for Neuron #2 to catch up with Neuron #1, as an author you care about getting your work read, not about piracy. As O’Reilly said, “being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement.” What Attributor and other similar services are actually good for is checking to see whether you’ve been undermining the publishers’ blockade by posting copies of your own work outside their paywall (hey, over here!). That would be good for you–perfect, in fact–but bad for them. I don’t know if publishers are actually going to start cracking down on authors who do this (see also: victories, Pyrrhic)–that might deserve a post of its own. I do know that this “service” of detecting copyright infringement is directly opposed to your interests as an author (if it’s just plagiarism you’re worried about, Google has been around for a while). It’s ironic that the only commercial publisher I’ve heard of threatening to use this service has been caught illicitly duplicating its own articles (schadenfreudelicious!). Not helping.
- Stopping bad people from getting your content, by blocking interlibrary loan. That’s right–for-profit academic publishers are now fighting ILL. Yeah, because faculty and students at small institutions and interested laypeople are such a huge threat to their multi-billion-dollar businesses. Analysis: not just not helping, this is straight up a-hole behavior.
I guess that leaves:
- Typesetting your manuscript and making a nice-looking PDF. Yep, there’s no way you’d ever be able to master that on your own. Oh wait. Physicists and mathematicians–you know, those alleged brainheads with no stylistic sensibility–have been doing this for themselves for ages with LaTeX. Yes, biologists and earth scientists, prior to submission. If the rest of us just got on board, we could pull the last creaking support out from the Jenga tower of piled-high feces that is for-profit academic publishing. Now, you may whine that you don’t want to have to waste time formatting your own manuscript, but if you’ve actually submitted anything to a journal, ever, you’ve had to spend time formatting your own manuscript to fit whatever arbitrary submission format the journal wanted. You could have spent that time making it look like something other than a reject from Microsoft Word 101. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.
Through new corporate masters Taylor & Francis, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology will now you let you make your article Open Access for a mere $3250. You should feel flattered–your article is as valuable to them as 25 fully-paid regular memberships in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology ($130 a pop at the time of this writing). Each regular membership brings a year’s subscription to JVP, which is running upwards of 1200 pages a year. Probably 1500 pages soon, if it’s not there already. The annual page count of JVP is about 100 times the length of a long-ish article (most articles are shorter), and Taylor & Francis want 25 times that amount, so the OA deal is basically charging you for the equivalent of 2500 hundred people reading your work. Er, except that 25 regular memberships in SVP would pay for all kinds of genuinely valuable work that the society does–students grants, public education, support for legislation to protect fossil resources–whereas AFAICT buying the Open Access deal through Taylor & Francis only supports Taylor & Francis (someone please correct me if I’m wrong).
It’s an outrageous ripoff in either case.
You might feel that the OA fee at Taylor & Francis is a bit high, given that PLoS ONE only charges $1350 and gives you unlimited pages and unlimited high-resolution color figures. Wait, let me shout that for those hard of reading: UNLIMITED PAGES and UNLIMITED HIGH-RESOLUTION COLOR FIGURES. That’s what an organization can do when it decides to serve authors and readers instead of shareholders. And we might even expect that the OA publication fee at PLoS ONE is a bit inflated, since it represents “bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize [a] handful of high-quality flagship journals“–totally unlike what the Nature Publishing Group is doing with Scientific Reports. (Curious, NPG wants your kidneys in exchange for actual science, but they’ll let you read about the evils of PLoS for free.) As long as I’m here, I might as well note that the OA publication fee at NPG’s Scientific Reports is $1700 ($1700 – $1350 = shareholder cut, I’ll wager). Not sure why Taylor & Francis needs twice as much as NPG–maybe NPG have something left to learn about corporate greed, after all.
Just as a point of comparison, let’s consider Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Like JVP and most other journals, they have page charges for long manuscripts, but like JVP and most other journals, those page charges are not a barrier to publication for people who can’t afford to pay. Printed figures are usually black and white but figures in the PDFs–which are what really matters these days, to the vast majority of readers–are in full color, for free. There is a length limit, but it’s high, and they have a sister publication, Palaeontologia Polonica, for those longer works. They offer subscriptions and send hardbound copies to libraries worldwide, but they also make all of their papers available for free online. Heck, they even encourage authors to post PDFs of their own works on their own websites.
What’s wrong with those people!?
Seriously, just giving everything away for free? Not even asking authors to pay a dime to publish shorter papers? How do they stay in business?
Ah, well. There you have it. They’re not in business. APP is published by the Institute of Paleobiology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (so, state supported) and they’re out to make a name for themselves. That means visibility, which means distribution–instantly, everywhere, for free. In other words, their desires are aligned perfectly with those of authors. That’s why they don’t charge for publishing, and that’s why they encourage you to post PDFs of your own papers. What’s good for you is also good for them.
(Preemptive strike: before someone points out that JVP currently has a shorter lag time from submission to publication than APP, let me say two things: the situation was precisely reversed a couple of years ago, and thanks, Taylor & Francis, for having the courtesy to screw over your authors and readers quickly.)
I don’t know if APP will be able to keep this up forever. I wouldn’t bet against them. Producing the journal can’t be much harder than it was in the decades before they gained their current global prominence, and I imagine that prominence has brought them enough new subscribers to offset the cost (a year’s subscription is 65 Euros, or a little less than $90 as of this writing). If free distribution eventually costs them subscribers, they ought to be able to recoup the loss by cutting or at least curtailing the printing, binding, and shipping of dead trees (although those of us in the West should remember that not all of the world is wired yet).
To recap, a sample of current open access publication fees in journals that handle vertebrate paleontology papers:
- Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology: $3250
- Nature Scientific Reports: $1700
- PLoS ONE: $1350
- Acta Palaeontologica Polonica: $0
If You’re Not Outraged…
I fully expect that this will piss off some people in the SVP. Which would be excellent. Maybe they’ll get mad enough to explain to me why Taylor & Francis charges twice what Nature Publishing Group does for OA publishing, and more than two and a half times what PLoS does, for a demonstrably inferior product (page limits, no free color figures, etc.). And why their per-article download fees are so egregiously high, and why they charge for electronic access to supplementary data (thanks to Andy again for documenting these lunacies). And all of this on behalf a society whose stated goal is “to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology”. Maybe–just maybe–a critical mass of people in the society will get mad enough to demand a better deal next time around. Or, as long as I’m dreaming, maybe we can find a publisher whose actual behavior is aligned with our ideals (I hear Poland is nice this time of year). As Aaronson said,
Once we’ve mustered a level of anger commensurate with what’s happening, we can then debate what to do next, which journals are overpriced and which aren’t, what qualifies as “open access,” and so on. But the first step is for a critical mass of us to acknowledge that we are being had.