Open access books

February 1, 2013

Michael Richmond asked an interesting question in a comment on an earlier post:

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£95 at 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.

15 Responses to “Open access books”

  1. MarkMcG Says:

    Increasing preponderance of e-readers (dedicated or as apps, &c.) introduces another option? E-book version to accompany hardback release not only increases access but also presumably profits (assuming that these versions are not themselves OA) if this makes the book available at a reduced cost (though academic texts on kindle have not in my experience been that much cheaper than the paperbacks at least) – if can offer e-books at a substantial discount then you’ve opened up the market to those of us who like the ability to carry off and read at leisure, but can’t always afford the dead-tree version. An online OA version to check out the articles as soon as possible, with option to buy reasonably cheap e-book, would work pretty well for me, at least.

  2. Michael Richmond Says:

    I’ll play the role of a very mild provocateur, if you don’t mind, in the interests of starting the discussion.

    If the goal of a scientist is primarily to have his work as widely available as possible, then why not write books and make them freely available, either on websites as PDFs, or in e-book format?

    I suspect that many will reply, “No, I put too much time and effort into writing the book; I can’t possibly give it away for free.” But that’s exactly what everyone does with journal articles: we work for weeks or months, write up the results and give them away without any recompense from the journal.

    Consider two scientists, A and B. Let us postulate that each has a secure position and so is NOT under pressure to produce a certain amount of work per year. Each scientists works for five years on his research. Dr. A publishes 3 articles, averaging 10 pages each, per year in journals; the result: 150 pages of published research, net income zero. Dr. B spends his five years writing a book, which he then places on his website; the result: 150 pages of published research, net income zero.

    Don’t they end up in the same place in the end?

    Sure, Dr. B _might_ be able to convince a publisher to give him money in exchange for the rights to sell his book. But in that case, he is reducing the availability of his research — right? Should we criticize Dr. B for being greedy or immoral?

    Again, I’m framing these questions in a particularly provocative manner simply to sharpen the debate. Like Mike T., I do feel that there’s a difference between publishing articles and writing a book, but it’s a vague one; when I sit down and try to put my thoughts into words, they don’t come easily. I wonder how much of my feelings are based solely on tradition, rather than on reason or logic.

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    I think that pricing comes into this, and might even be the most important factor. In your hypothetical scheme, Michael, Dr. A publishes 15 articles. Under current per-article paywall fees, it is likely that an average citizen who wanted to obtain those articles would end up paying about $30 per article, for a total of $450. Whereas Dr. B’s book is not going to cost anywhere near that much–maybe $60-100, or roughly the same cost to the consumer as downloading only three of Dr. A’s articles.

    Also, when you buy Dr. B’s book, you get a big, hefty physical thing, which clearly had a non-trivial cost to produce and ship. The poor schmuck who paid $450 for online access to Dr. A’s articles got PDFs, whose cost to produce and ship is close to zero.

    After a few months, used copies of Dr. B’s book will start to become available at a substantial discount. If we follow the letter of the law, this never happens for Dr. A’s articles–the barrier-based publishers charge as much for old articles as for new, as much for short articles as for long, and as much for trivial papers as for citation classics. (In practice, this particular inequality is partially offset by the fact that PDFs can be easily swapped among individuals, albeit in direct contravention of the publishers’ wishes.)

    And I think that is much of the explanation for why essentially all of the emphasis of the OA movement has been on journal articles and not books: with books we are paying publishers at least plausibly reasonable amounts of money for physical objects that it obviously cost them a lot to make and ship. Whereas with journal articles we are paying them outrageous amounts of money for papers that they did not write, review, edit, or physically ship and print (to the average downloader; I realize that the physical copies sent to subscribers and libraries cost something to make and ship, but surely not $30/article in perpetuity!).

    I have long wondered how things would be playing out now if 5 or 10 years ago the big barrier-based publishers had gone to a more sane pricing scheme for journal articles–say, $1 per download. I think it is possible that they would have sold a lot more; it does not strike me as unreasonable that 30x more people would just pay to download if the download fee was less than the cost of a soda. And I think it would have defused a lot of the righteous indignation of the OA movement. How much primary research do Joe and Jane Average need access to, that they couldn’t afford it at a buck a pop?* Even if there are some hardcore science geeks who need 1000 papers a year–look at how much people spend on other hobbies and diversions.

    * I’m not saying that I personally buy this argument–I think that Joe and Jane Average have already paid for the research once, and it is wrong to ask for them to pay for it again in a form where copying and distribution are essentially free. If they want a nicely bound 3lb printout to carry around, I see no injustice in asking them to pay a reasonable amount for that–and evidently neither does anyone else, since books have largely (but not entirely) escaped the notice of OA activists.

    But I think it would have been a canny move for the barrier-based publishers, and I think it might have kept them in business longer than their current strategy of sticking with insanely inflated prices and overt hostility to the very people they ostensibly serve. They have made it very, very easy for people like us to point to them and say, “These predatory bastards need $30/article on top of subscription fees, forever, for zero-cost copies (i.e., PDFs) of work that the public has already paid for!!?? It was a fantastic racket–35% profit margins even for the losers–until people started calling them on it. But they should have gone for a sane compromise a long time ago.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    Oh–and we’re both assuming that the book author never gets a dime. Now, authors of technical books don’t get a ton of money, and certainly not a living wage, but they often get at least a pittance (I know, I’m contracted for one right now), which is more than the authors of journal articles, who get nothing, ever. So we’re both talking about the maximally pessimistic case for books, where it’s impossible to financially support an author whose work you like through buying their output.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Michael, I would be a lot more confident of people reading my fifteen ten-page pagers (or, more realistically for me, ten fifteen-page papers or five thirty-page papers) than I would of someone reading my 150-page book. More important, of course, is granularity: someone who’s only interested in one or two of the papers will read them, but probably might not plough through the book looking for relevant bits.

    Matt, as a matter of tactics I think you’re right that the enemies-of-science “publishers” would have done themselves a huge favour by dropping to an iTunes-like level of $1 per paper. But there’s not way that was ever going to happen: no-one drops prices by a factor of thirty, ever. If someone farsighted at Elsevier had suggested it, his manager would have said “Well, we could look into maybe bringing the price down by five to ten percent”. Once you’ve persuaded yourself that something is worth a certain amount, it takes an enormous amount of cognitive effort to achieve the activation energy necessary to radically change it.

    And this is all to the good. For me, open access is not about price, it’s about freedom. If the privateers had seduced us all into settling for cheap slavery instead of expensive slavery, we’d still have remained slaves. As it is, we’re breaking free.

  6. Vertebrat Says:

    Printing edited volumes needn’t be part of the publishing process. Most readers don’t want a physical book, and if you do, you can easily make your own from open-access PDFs. This is better than a traditional edited volume, because it contains exactly the papers you care about, and you don’t have to wait years until all the authors finish procrastinating.

    Lulu will print and bind 400 pages of A4 for £9.60, so this isn’t even very expensive. (That’s black and white; color is much more expensive at £60, but fortunately it’s seldom needed.) All you need to do is assemble a stack of CC-BY PDFs and a cover (and maybe an introduction and table of contents). So you can have your very own Post Hoc Overlay Journal of Pneumaticity, Volume I, or Trends in Mamenchisaurs, or whatever inflates your air sacs.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    If would definitely say publishing one’s work in a book is more immoral than publishing in a pay-access journal. It turns out that publishing descriptions in journals are actually rather common (in my area of research, where there about only about 18 genera, at least three or four have been described ONLY in book articles). The descriptions in the aforementioned book chapters also tend to be pretty poor due to space limitations (though this isn’t the case in situations where an entire chapter is used to describe a single new species). But worst of all, unlike journal articles (especially in the shiny digital future), book chapters are usually only issued out in a limited number of printings, and after a while the book goes out of print. Because paleontology books tend to be bought by a limited number of people, a book going out of print means the research is gone forever. Its even worse if the book is only available in certain countries.

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    Anonymous, those are some very solid points about the widespread and long-term availability of taxonomic works. It would be nice if the ICZN, ICBN, etc., would mandate that descriptions of new taxa have to be published under an open license to be valid. And as long as I’m dreaming, I’d like a Brachytrachelopan.

    Vertebrat, your points are also well taken, and this:

    So you can have your very own Post Hoc Overlay Journal of Pneumaticity, Volume I, or Trends in Mamenchisaurs, or whatever inflates your air sacs.

    made me laugh out loud. I would totally subscribe to Trends in Mamenchisaurs–but I suppose your point is that I shouldn’t have to, I could just assemble it myself.

    In our family we get a lot of print-on-demand photo books from Shutterfly, mostly because after we got the first one, we kept getting ridiculous offers like the occasionally completely free book. I have often thought about culling images from old monographs to make my own atlas of sauropod anatomy. In fact, since most of the classic monographs are in the public domain now, someone surely could, and offer it through lulu or wherever. That would be…interesting.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Or you could just use Lulu to reprint Ostrom & Mook 1921 from the PDF.

    On 2 February 2013 05:09, Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yesterday, I wrote:

    But there’s not way that was ever going to happen: no-one drops prices by a factor of thirty, ever. If someone farsighted at Elsevier had suggested it, his manager would have said “Well, we could look into maybe bringing the price down by five to ten percent”.

    Today, by happy coincidence, Seth Godin blogged about just this.

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    Or you could just use Lulu to reprint Ostrom & Mook 1921 from the PDF.

    Sure. But then you get roughly a hundred pages of stuff that isn’t beautifully executed plates, and nothing at all on Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, or Haplocanthosaurus. What I had in mind was culling the figures and plates from Osborn (1899), Hatcher (1901, 1903), Riggs (1904), Osborn and Mook (1921), and Gilmore (1936) at least (and maybe Jack’s later Cam papers, Jerry’s Suuwassea papers, Upchurch et al. 2004, etc.), and printing up a DIY Skeletal Atlas of Common Morrison Formation Sauropods. One could do the same for Tendaguru, Dashanpu, etc. Something like that would be very useful in the field and the prep lab, and it would keep you from hauling around hundreds of pages you don’t need.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    It would be nice, yes. But you’ll run into copyright issues for anything published in 1923 or later. (Obvious exception: CC BY descriptions in journals such as PLOS ONE.)

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    Oh, yeah. I knew I was forgetting something…

    Well, there you go: copyright stands in the way of useful science. (Not that that was ever in doubt around here.)

  14. Nir Says:

    It’s fun to browse through existing open-access books:

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Notice, by the way, that even “open access” materials published with an NC clause (“non-commercial”) could not safely be used in such a book. Since money changes hands when the physical book is purchased, the endeavour could be classified as commercial. Who wants to risk getting sued? The only safe thing is to stick to public domain and CC BY materials.

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