Moral dimensions of Open, part 2: “the public paid for it, so the public should have access”

April 7, 2016

This is the third part of a series on the Moral Dimensions of Open, in preparation for the forthcoming OSI2016 meeting, where I’ll be in the Moral Dimensions group. [Part 0 laid the foundation by asking why this matters; and part 1 discussed the argument that price should be zero when marginal cost is zero.] As usual, I will be concentrating on open access.

It’s now very well established that many, many kinds of people can and do make use of published scholarly literature when they can get hold of it: teachers, nurses, small business founders, developing-world entrepreneurs, rights campaigners, patient advocates … the list goes on.


The elitist and paternalistic idea that research papers are only of use to scholars at accredited universities is dead in the water. We know that all these non-researchers can and do make use of research, but does that mean they have a right to it?

One of the most frequent arguments for open access is this: research is funded primarily by the public — through taxes and charitable donations. Therefore the public should have access to the resulting research.

On the face of it, this argument is unassailable. I can’t think of any other area of government funded work that is handed over to corporations for them to profit from. and unavailable to citizens without paying a second time. The very idea sounds ridiculous.

But there are two objections that often crop up.

Objection 1: “the public can’t understand the research so they have no right to access”.

We can and should dismiss this argument immediately. The first have (“the public can’t understand”) is demonstrably false in many cases — see above — and the second half (“so they have no right to access”) wouldn’t follow from it ever if it was true. This argument is nonsense from start to end and I mention it only for completeness.

Objection 2: yes, the public pays for research to be done, and it has a right to the results of the research; but the papers describing the research are separate from the research itself, and the public has no right to them.

This argument is more substantial, and deserves to be addressed in some detail.

The first thing to say is that, in many areas of research, the paper is the research. For me, as a palaeontologist, for example, when I recognise and characterise a new dinosaur, the output is a paper containing the description and illustrations. So in many cases, the distinction between research and paper does not apply.

Second, even in fields where the paper is a secondary output — for example, you discover a new cancer drug and write a paper about it — the writing of the paper is also part of the work that you do as a researcher. The hard work (and it is hard work) of writing up the research, documenting the methods, running the analysis, describing the results, justifying the conclusions, creating the illustrations and so on, is all part of the work of a researcher — and is usually funded (like the rest of her work) with public money.

So the creation of an author’s manuscript is the result of public money. At that point it should be public property. It then gets submitted to a publisher and things happen that result in a nicely typeset copy with metadata lodged with various services. The publisher has made a contribution at this point, which should be compensated. One way to pay them for their work is with an article processing charge. This of course is Gold open access.

But in the traditional model, the publisher takes its compensation by placing the formatted paper behind a paywall.

Is this reasonable?

The first thing to note here is that while the publisher has added value to the formatted paper, they made no contribution whatsoever to the manuscript, so it’s wrong for them to impose any embargo on the manuscript’s publication as Green OA. A publisher who seeks to prevent the author from making the manuscript available is essentially admitted that the value they add is not worth what they charge for it.

That leaves the question of whether it’s justifiable for the formatted paper to go behind a paywall. I think that is open to debate. It’s far from obvious that the traditional approach is justifiable: while the publisher has at this point made a contribution, it’s a tiny portion of the total value that has gone into the paper — the work of the research itself greatly dominates, of course, and without that there would be no paper.

But I do think there may be a case to be made that publishers can legitimately seek revenue by paywalling formatted papers provided that no limitation is placed on the unformatted manuscript. I think it’s a stupid way to make money, but perhaps not an inherently immoral one, so long as the content of the paper is freely available elsewhere.

[Next time, part 3: “publishers’ profit margins are too high”]

8 Responses to “Moral dimensions of Open, part 2: “the public paid for it, so the public should have access””

  1. […] [Read on to part 2: “the public paid for it, so the public should have access”] […]

  2. Jean-Michel BENOIT Says:

    Hello, Mike.
    You’ve raised (again) good points in favor of open access. Of course, laypeople like me do NOT understand everything in a research paper, But they grab what’s essential in most of the papers. And reading more and more teaches you more things.
    Thanks for that post
    Best regards

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Jean-Michel. Two points I didn’t make in the post, but are worth mentioning:

    1. Not everyone needs to have access to any given biomed paper, but everyone needs their doctors to be able to read them. Same for every paper: people who don’t read the papers themselves still benefit from their having been read by others.

    2. Experts do not appear fully formed from the mind of Zeus. They are grown, slowly, from ignorance, by reading and understanding difficult papers. If those papers are not made available to non-experts, we’ll never make any new experts.

  4. Teresa White Says:

    Your last comment hit the nail on the head for me Mike. “If those papers are not made available to non-experts, we’ll never make any new experts.”

    I research and write for an exhibition company. My job, as I see it, is to make the complex ideas and terminology accessible for much younger visitors and casual observers. It’s my goal to engage them with new discoveries that have intrigued me as I read through papers. And perhaps, in the end, spark their own interest in science. Having said that, I’m in the fortunate position that I can have my work vetted by the wonderful Eric Snively if I go too far off base or just get something completely wrong.

  5. Lisa Says:

    Spot on!

    The information in papers goes so far beyond its original scope once it gets out of academia. There are so many benefits to be had, and not all of them obvious.

    For example:

    I write computer simulations professionally, so I use a lot of research papers not for the author’s conclusions but rather for the raw tables of measurements. Very often I need source data for oddball things. e.g. “the coefficient of restitution of different kinds of glass” so I know if flint glass bounces higher than plate glass when the dark wizard smashes the crystal ball in next summer’s blockbuster film. When audiences are amazed that it “looks sooooo real” its because a lot of real-world science was leveraged to create the effect.

    But, I also like to use my skills for fun. Not only do I write free software, but my brother has a 3D printer and we both like to design toys and gadgets and share the files with others. However, I can’t afford to buy a stack of papers at $40 a pop even if what I’m designing would benefit from the data. Free or even less expensive papers would change all that.

    “The public can’t understand the research so they have no right to access” burns me up the worst. Not everyone who reads medical papers in particular is an uneducated person trying to perform self-diagnosis. A lot of my game AIs use theories from neuroscience papers to make smarter monsters that act more like real creatures and are more fun to play with. I’m well educated and using this information for nothing more than making people smile. There’s no harm in that.

    So, if it helps your cause:

    Free Papers = More Believable Video Games

    Free Papers = More Stunning Movie Special FX

    Free Papers = More Free Toys on Thingiverse

    Free Papers = Lots of Fun Stuff for Everyone

  6. “the public paid for it, so the public should have access”
    I’d like to know your opinion on a related moral argument:
    Public funds should not be used by publicly financed research institutions for buying the information for which the public already paid.

    This could be a moral argument to gradually decrease and finally eliminate public money from subscriptions to scholarly articles.
    And the public money paid for subscriptions would be available for financing publication costs.

  7. Since you’ve had one example of an unforeseen use, here’s another:

    My wife runs a business that includes early childhood music-and-movement classes. She wants to read the research on psychological and physiological development in that area so she can be sure of communicating the real benefits of such a programme, and link to such papers on her social media page. So it’s not just that she needs to read them, but then impress parents by citing paywalled literature: the parents should be able to read the papers too!

    Thankfully I have access to the paywalled papers through my university affiliation.

    (And yes, this should go on !)

  8. […] this is important, the argument that zero marginal cost should result in zero price, the idea that the public has a right to read what it paid for, the very high profit margins of scholarly publishers, and the crucial observation that science […]

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