Funders have all the power in OA negotiations. So why aren’t they using it?

June 19, 2013

A few days ago I explained why I don’t think “hybrid OA” is a legitimate path to the full-open-access world we all want. The TL;DR is first that it’s offered at stupidly high prices, and secondly that it’s completely impossible to detect or prevent double-dipping because journal subscriptions are the most opaquely priced good in the known universe.

Then I found that Stuart Shieber had written much the same article but much better four years ago, from the perspective of explaining why the Harvard open-access fund does not cover hybrid fees.

In response, BMC’s Matthew Cockerill tweeted that “Shieber underplays a key benefit of hybrid OA though. Wide author choice allows funders to take stronger stance on requiring full OA”, adding “hybrid OA option therefore makes it more conceivable a funder could mandate immediate full OA”.

Now. Here’s the thing.

Funders can mandate whatever the hell they want. That’s how it works when you’re the one with the money. They hold the purse strings. They are researchers’ paymasters. And in the case of bodies like RCUK and HEFCE that spend public money, “what they want” means “what serves interests of people whose money they’re spending”.

So funders should mandate what they, and the people whose money they’re spending, actually want: immediate low-cost BOAI-compliant OANo delays, no ifs, buts, maybes. As always, researchers who don’t like the funder’s conditions will be at liberty not to accept their grants. And equally, publishers who don’t like the conditions imposed on recipients are at liberty to decline their manuscript offers.

So all we really need is for funders to grow a pair and stop kow-towing to exploitative and over-priced publishers. This is why the RCUK betrayal hurts so much. It would have been so easy for them to Do The Right Thing.

Yes, it would be great if academics took the lead. I think they should be racing the funders to see who can be first to fix this: after all, I’ve argued that hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. As scientists, our job is to bring new knowledge into the world. Hiding it behind a journal’s paywall is unacceptable. But as the comments on that Guardian article and on the followup SV-POW! article indicate, there are other pressures on academics.

Whereas public funders, who have all the money, therefore have all the power. They can do what they want, and should — in the interests of the people whose taxes give them that money. It’s what they’re there for.

Sorry to keep shouting, but: there is no justification for bodies that spend public money putting publishers’ interests ahead of the public’s.


22 Responses to “Funders have all the power in OA negotiations. So why aren’t they using it?”

  1. Dino Hunter Says:

    I joined SV-POW to see Sauropod Vertebrae of the WEEK. There has been little, if none talk about Sauropod vertebrae. Therefore, I believe the title of the group to be missleading, and with to be taken off the list.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Be my guest, Tracy. No-one forces you to come here.

  3. Mark Robinson Says:

    It would appear that someone doesn’t believe in blog-evolution. I think All sauropod vertebrae, except when we’re talking about Open Access pretty much covers it.

    I happen to believe that OA may actually be bigger and more important than sauropod vertebrae (I know, I am washing my mouth out with soap as I type one-handed) so I’m happy for Mike to continue to fight the good fight and write whatever he wishes here, on his own blog (although, I’m even happier when thrown the occasional bone).

  4. One answer – political pressure. No one wants to be the person responsible for making half of the publishing industry redundant. That’s despite knowing full well that to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ (where ‘there’ is a much better future) will require some short-term pains in the labor market. The long-term scientific benefit is put aside, because the short-term is much easier to grok in the world of politics.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Ah, short-termism — the curse of every government. I fear you’re right.

    Here’s what I want to know (and I think Jon Tennant or possibly Ross Mounce asked this on Twitter the other day): how did previous governments manage the decay processes of other obsolete businesses? Did governments prop up, say, horse-carriage manufacturers, at the expense of the public purse? Was there the same hand-wringing at the loss of that industry?

    Does anyone have the history?

  6. The modern horse-carriage is Detroit; where the U.S. is stil propping up inferior and costlier gas-guzzling cars. Versus the higher-end and cheaper Japanese alternatives or new electric vehicle entrants such as Tesla.

    It’s probably turtles all the way down trying to explain why shit like this wouldn’t fly a century ago. Lobbying certainly wasn’t as large and in charge when horses ruled the streets.

  7. In this context, I wonder what is to be made of the story of Ernest Marples and the virtual destruction of the UK railway network?

    One-time MD of the road construction company Marples Ridgway, Marples believed the future for transport lay on the roads, with the railways, in his opinion, belonging to the Victorian era.

    Marples was also UK Minister of Transport between 1959 and 1964. In that capacity, in 1959 he opened the first section of the M1. In 1961 Marples Ridgway built the Hammersmith Flyover in London at a cost of £1.3 million, immediately followed by building the Chiswick Flyover.

    Marples also oversaw the Beeching cuts, which closed a large portion of the UK railway network.

    Leaving aside any conflict of interest issues, was Marples right to decimate the British railway system?

  8. brembs Says:

    @jason: “No one wants to be the person responsible for making half of the publishing industry redundant.”
    I would have no problems being responsible for the destruction of 100% of the academic publishing industry, as it operates now.
    Papers need to get published one way or another and the required number of people for that task will be employed by whatever succeeds publishers.

    @Richard: I’m not quite sure what to make of it. At that point in time, perhaps he was right – I don’t know how parasitic the UK railway system was siphoning tax-payer funds into corporate pockets. At any rate, building modern railways for fast trains may often prove to be cheaper than restoring antiquated ones.

  9. brembs Says:

    More to the core topic of the post: as much as funder kow-towing annoys me, what annoys me much, much more, what annoys the hell out of me is we scientists creep and crawl on all fours to politicians, funders, publishers asking them to force us to do something we should bloody well be able to ourselves: we broke the system, we fix it. Begging others to save us from the hell we created for ourselves is probably the one single most annoying aspect of the entire situation. We’re already living off of other people’s taxes and now we ask yet more for help – isn’t there anything we can do ourselves?

  10. @brembs. Yes, I raised the issue more as a thought experiment than from a conviction either way. I just find the horse-carriage argument too simplistic and somewhat over-used.

    The problem with building new lines is that much of the land from the old tracks was sold off and built on, and building new tracks is devilishly difficult in our crowded island — as we are discovering right now.

    Here is a quote from a Guardian article on the topic:

    “Examples of the headaches imposed by Beeching’s legacy include the Varsity line that used to link Oxford and Cambridge and which the government now wants to reopen to connect fast-growing Milton Keynes with Oxbridge’s research centres. Rebuilding the disused western section between Oxford and Bedford will cost £270m and could be ready by 2017. But the track bed of the eastern section, between Bedford and Cambridge, was sold decades ago and has since been built on. How transport planners get round this problem remains to be seen.”

  11. brembs Says:

    To clarify my last comment: this was only meant as a strong emphasis on Mike’s acknowledgment: “Yes, it would be great if academics took the lead. I think they should be racing the funders to see who can be first to fix this”. I’m with you Mike.
    I just can’t get over the humiliation that urging funders to do what we should be doing is essentially like saying: we’re too weak to do it ourselves, please, in addition to all the money we’re already getting from you, could you please also do the mandates for as and, while you’re at it, shell out the dough to police and enforce the mandates?”
    I’ve had this discussion over and over with Stevan Harnad, and he is essentially completely disillusioned: scientists are essentially helpless junkies who either need to die or be weaned from their fix by force (paraphrasing, of course).

    I’m too naive for this, I guess.

  12. […] Mike Taylor wrote about how frustrated he is that funders don’t issue strong open access mandates. He acknowledges that essentially, the buck stops with us, the scientists, but mentions that pressures on scientists effectively prevent them from driving publishing reform. Obviously, from the scientist’s perspective, this is a classic collective action problem: every scientist who would start boycotting corporate publishers would be risking their livelihood. On the other hand, if we all started to publish exclusively in a world-wide collective of SciELO or SHARE-like scholarly communication system, we would not only save billions in publishing costs every year and provide fully open access as an added benefit, but no scientist would risk anything. […]

  13. drgunn Says:

    So to complete the thought, what are the strongest arguments that open access creates jobs? I hope all of you nominated someone for the PLOS ASAP awards, but if not, they’re taking company nominations now, which you can send in via email to me and I’ll pass them along.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    “What are the strongest arguments that open access creates jobs?”

    Do you doubt it? This is new.

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t fully share your annoyance, Bjorn. Of course, I do wish all scientists would decide as a group to do the right thing. But I understand the prisoner’s dilemma that makes many of them feel they can’t do that. By contrast, there is no compelling reason why funder shouldn’t do the right thing. And by that I don’t just mean “do the researchers a favour by imposing a better mandate”, I mean doing what they in fact want to do.

  16. brembs Says:

    More than deciding as a group of scientists to publish somewhere else, I’m expecting scientists to demand infrastructure improvements from their institutions. The same power that asks for subscriptions from libraries, should ask for better infrastructure. That demand doesn’t cost anything at all, it doesn’t even risk anything: just the demand would already be a sign of support.

    But be that as it may, I guess it’s good that we are heterogeneous: with our approaches being complimentary, it means we will push on all avenues with some force.

    Therefore, I have another funder mandate for you to push for: exclude all hi-IF (i.e., larger than ~10-20) for any funding evaluations due to lack of scientific reliability. This is an entirely data-based policy that can be revoked if there is any data that shows any superiority of publications in hi-IF journals. Many countries already exclude lo-IF publications from such decisions (which is not backed by data), it’s time the funders follow the evidence and impose a data-based exclusion.

    What do you say? If ever there was an evidence-based policy, this is it.

  17. Mike Taylor Says:

    I like it!

    But I think it would take a lot of re-education before anyone would go for it.

  18. brembs Says:

    Sure, if scientists and funders are like other people, it’ll be as difficult as rooting out homeopathy, dowsing or astrology :-) (which are mentioned in the paper as per your request – perhaps we should have mentioned you in the acknowledgments, sorry :-)
    But then again, data have the advantage that they can cut any argument short.
    We won’t know if we don’t try!

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    I wish I shared your optimism that data can cut any argument short. That’s not been my experience.

    As for homeopathy, dowsing and astrology — my recollection is that you were the one who mentioned them in the first place, and I merely suggested you retain that mention in the paper. So no acknowledgement necessary for that!

  20. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    The other day, Mark Witton’s beautiful and brilliant new book ‘Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy’ arrived. Cost me less than $25 Cdn. Hardcover, beautifully printed, hundreds of colour illustrations and diagrams. Same day, searching for a paper (on trilobites, forgive me) I found the publisher wanted $39 for an electronic copy. How anyone can possibly defend the kind of practice that allows that sort of highway robbery to go on and even be considered acceptable in polite company is beyond me.

  21. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, it’s an incredible contrast.

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