3rd try: the choice of where to publish has a moral component

January 28, 2013

[Background for anyone who’s not been following: 1, Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. 2, Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. 3, Is it immoral to hide your research behind a paywall?]

Thank you!

First of all, I’d like to offer my profound gratitude to all of you who commented on the previous article on paywall morality. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never seem a comment thread so full of careful, detailed, thoughtful analyses. It’s gratifying, and humbling, to see all that on this blog. Many of the comments deserve to be full posts in their own right, especially (but not only) those by Paul Barrett, Richard Butler, Andy Farke, Jim Kirkland, John Hutchinson, Michael Eisen and Steve Brusatte. I note that this list of names includes many of the most productive British-based dinosaur workers, whose experiences are worth hearing.

A combination of circumstances meant that I wasn’t able to respond to the comments as they came in. But Matt has point out, and he’s right, that that turned out to be a good thing: it meant I didn’t drop speedbumps in the path of the developing exposition, derailing the conversation by chasing after some specific part of it.

There were three things that people most objected to in the original article. and I’d like to touch on all of them.

1. Cost of publication

One of those (and this is an objection mostly from Guardian readers new to the idea of open access rather than from the more informed SV-POW! audience) is fear that publication will be impossible for people without grants. I don’t want to spend a lot more words on this, as we all now know about the many free-to-publish OA journals (Acta Palaeontologica PolonicaPalaeontologia ElectronicaPalArch, etc.), and about PLOS’s no-questions-asked waivers, and about the $99-for-life pricing scheme at PeerJ.

2. The importance of “high-impact” publications

A more important objection, and one that has been near-universal in the lengthy comments here on SV-POW!, is that I was wrong to downplay the importance of “high-impact” publications, especially in Science and Nature, for career progression.

I will have much more to say about this in a future post, but before we get into details let me just say the evidence we have indicates that I was wrong about this. It seems that — at least for palaeontologists in the UK, if not for geneticists in the US — publishing in these venues does matter. I deplore that fact; but this doesn’t make it untrue.

(In my defence, I didn’t exactly tell people not to publish in these journals — only that a case has been made that you don’t need to, that the REF and RCUK both explicitly disclaim venue as a factor, and that there are high-profile OA alternatives.)

3. The morality of paywalls, redux

The third issue is that some people objected to the strap-line of the original article, “Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral”.

On mature reflection, I am inclined to stick to my guns on this one.

As I noted in the last post, it doesn’t follow that everyone who gives their work to a paywalled journal is an immoral person. We live in a complex world, where compromises are sometimes necessary. A strategy to achieve maximum openness in ten years’ time might conceivably involve taking less open routes today. (Several people suggested that if pro-OA people early in their careers refuse to take a Science or Nature opportunity when it comes up, that might prevent them from ever becoming senior people with a more influential role.)

But what I want to get out of this, and the reason I am sticking to my guns, is that I don’t want anyone to walk away from this controversy unaware of the moral dimension — or I should say the immoral dimension — of paywalls.

The path that I have come to take myself, albeit after some years of thought and several publications in paywalled journals, is never again to publish research behind them. I do understand that not everyone will take that path. What I want is that no-one here chooses a paywall without seeing clearly what it represents and making a clear-headed tactical decision. When someone publishes in Nature, there’s a reason. But for someone with a Cretaceous fossil to blithely go, “Oh, I’ll send it to Cretaceous Research” without  thinking through what that means — that’s what I want to avoid.

When the public, or a charity, pays us to make new knowledge, it is an immoral thing, considered in isolation, to put the result where the public can’t see it. If we’re going to do that at all, let’s only do it with out eyes open. Let’s only do it after properly weighing the pros and cons.

So. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make, and I’m sorry it’s taken me three attempts.

8 Responses to “3rd try: the choice of where to publish has a moral component”

  1. Michael Richmond Says:

    Mike Taylor wrote:

    “When the public, or a charity, pays us to make new knowledge, it is an immoral thing, considered in isolation, to put the result where the public can’t see it. If we’re going to do that at all, let’s only do it with out eyes open. Let’s only do it after properly weighing the pros and cons.”

    To echo a comment made in an earlier posting by Michael Habib — 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?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    That’s an interesting question, Michael. 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.)

  3. ech Says:

    Was the book researched and written with taxpayer money in this scenario, Michael?

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    I think it would differ on a chapter-by-chapter basis. My own chapter wasn’t funded by anyone apart from me; others will have been written people on their salaried time, or maybe paid directly by grants. Maybe part of the problem with edited volumes is precisely this variability.

  5. Diane Lester Says:

    Perhaps you could write a post on why ‘publishing’ one’s research behind a paywall is unscientific. A researcher’s raison d’etre is being cutting edge, so not harnessing modern information and technology to disseminate ones’ work is pedestrian. I’m sure people like Einstein etc would have published Open Access. The book ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn is very relevant because it shows how most of the scientific community can’t handle new ideas to begin with for social rather than scientific reasons.
    The use of the word ‘prestige’ in reference to journals could also be examined. Its a subjective term and to some of us, ‘prestigious’ journals are nothing more than powerful brands with extraordinary money making potential.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’d agree with all that, Diane. I really should get around to writing about how foolish we are to let ourselves be as blinded by brands as high-school who judge people by the labels of the clothes they wear. I think that’s a strong analogy that merits some explanation.

  7. […] Richmond asked and interesting question in a comment on an earlier […]

  8. […] that, for some good and sane reason, you need to place a paper in a paywalled […]

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