Is it immoral to hide your research behind a paywall?
January 25, 2013
As noted a few days ago, I recently had an article published on the Guardian site entitled Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. The reaction to that article was fascinating, exhilarating and distressing in fairly equal parts. Fascinating because it generated a fertile stream of 156 comments, most of them substantial. Exhilarating because of some very positive responses. And distressing because some people who I like and respect absolutely hated it.
Those people’s main objections were nicely summed up by a response piece by Chris Chambers, published a few days later on the same site: Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. It’s a good, measured article, and I highly recommend it — not least because it’s apparent that while Chris thinks my tactics are all off, he makes it clear that he shares the goal of universal open access and further significant reform in scholarly communications.
So I’d like to clarify a couple of points that I didn’t make clearly enough in the original articles (but which I addressed in two separate comments on Chris’s article); and then I want to throw the floor open to see if we can hack through the more difficult issues that it raises.
Do scientists who follow accepted publishing practices deserve to be labelled “immoral”, as Taylor claims?
The intention of my original article was not to say that the individuals who allow their work to go behind paywalls are immoral people, but that the act it itself immoral. If that feels like a fine distinction, it’s not. For a variety of pragmatic reasons, essentially moral people commit immortal acts all the time. At the trivial end of the scale, something as insignificant as not bothering to sort the recycling; at the other end, while no-one would claim dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations is an essentially moral act, many people would accept that in the context of WWII, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were justified or even necessary. (And please: no-one cite this as “Mike says publishing behind a paywall is exactly like nuking civilians”!)
So my goal in the original piece was not to castigate individuals as immoral people, but to push us all into deliberately thinking through the moral implications of our publication choices — decisions that all too many scientists still make without thought for the accessibility or otherwise of their work. I stand by my original assertion that it’s immoral to accept public funding to do research, then hide the fruits of that research from the public that paid for it. But that doesn’t mean that I am “labelling” anyone. My apologies if that distinction wasn’t clear.
To summarise the intent of my article: the decision of where to publish is a moral one. Please, all you moral people out there, make a moral choice.
The curse of journal prestige
And so we come to the vexed subject of journal rank. First of all, it’s encouraging to see that most people seem to agree at least that the effects of journal rank are A Bad Thing — that judging scientists by what journals they have published in is at best corner cutting, if not outright dereliction. This is not controversial any more, if it ever was: the ridiculous experience of PLOS Medicine as they negotiated (yes, negotiated) their initial impact factor tells you all you need to know about such metrics.
As Chris wrote in his article:
In many (if not most) fields, the journals in which we publish are judged to be an indicator of professional quality. […] Science is bad at being scientific: the actual quality takes second place to the perception of quality, which is so strong that journal rank creates its own biosphere.
The problem here seem to be one of wrenching an entire community out of a delusion at once. Because the things I hear over and over again are: 1. “Of course, I personally would never judge a paper by what journal it’s in, or judge a scientist by what journals her papers are in”. And 2. “I need to get my papers in glamourous journals so that people will judge me well”. Everyone is worried about being judged by the very criterion that they insist they would never judge by.
I don’t pretend to have a solution to this absurd circle. Well, I do: we should all just stop it. But I don’t have a strategy for reaching that solution. One thing that is infuriating to see is that even when the REF and the Wellcome Trust so very explicitly say “We don’t care what journal your work is in”, researchers continue to disbelieve them. I would love to hear constructive thoughts on what can be done about this.
One useful contribution would for more assessment exercises, funding bodes and recruitment programs to explicitly state that they will be assessing the quality of work, not the reputation of the place where it’s published.
Who is going to make change happen?
And so we come to another disturbing circle. Chris wrote:
[Publishing only in OA journals] amounts to sacrificing career opportunities (promotions, grants, research time) for the good of the cause. […] Beyond the considerations of self-preservation, scientists are impelled to protect and support younger researchers under their wings.
I accept that there is truth in this — at least, more than I did when I wrote the original article. (That’s largely due to an email exchange behind the scenes with someone who is welcome to identify himself or herself if he or she wishes; otherwise I’ll preserve anonymity.)
But here’s what worries me about it. I hear researchers at all stages of their careers finding reasons to keep feeding paywalls. Early career researchers say “Well, I’m just getting started, I have to establish my reputation first”. People who are running their own labs say “I have to aim for prestige, for the sake of my students”. Long-established senior figures are in most cases still sceptical of this new-fangled open access thing (and indeed of anything not printed on paper).
So where is the change going to come from?
I must say it warms my heart when I read clear declarations from young researchers. Yesterday Erin McKiernan tweeted:
I wanted to cheer. And Scott Weingart commented on my original article:
Enough idealistic students like us, and maybe something will actually change, rather than just having us all live in a self-perpetuating system which we all know is flawed but are too worried about our careers to do anything about.
These are good people. I hope with all my heart that they get the careers their principled stands deserve.
We’re in a very strange situation now. As Scott points out, none of us wants to propagate the current situation, where where you publish counts as well as — or even more than — what you publish. Yet we conspire to keep the circle unbroken. Chris’s article says that people who publish behind paywalls are victics rather than perpetrators; but if they are victims, then who are they victims of? The very same system that they are part of. They are both victims and perpetrators.
Folks, we as an academic community are doing this to ourselves.
How can we stop it?