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”]

Building on the pioneering work of Myhrvold and Currie (1997), Darren Naish (circa 2003) conceived a theory of sauropod defence that has not been as widely accepted as he might have hoped. Sadly, other projects captured Naish’s attention, and his interest in writing up his theory waned. All that now remains of this sadly unpublished work is this speculative life restoration:



  • Myhrvold, Nathan P. and Philip J. Currie. 1997. Supersonic sauropods? Tail dynamics in the diplodocids. Paleobiology 23:393-409.

A couple of weeks ago, I said I was going to toss out my hardcopy issues of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology unless someone wanted them and was prepared to pay for shipping.

The good news is that Andrew Stuck did want them. We got in touch and arranged shipping, and they arrived at his house a few days ago. Here they are in their new home:


Andrew apologises that “they may not have the best bunkmates, as they fit best next to my collection of old creationist children’s literature. I think my shelf might spontaneously combust.”

But I’m glad to see that (on the lower shelf) he has both the Thunder Lizards edited volume and Gerhard Maier’s definitive book on the Tendaguru expeditions, African Dinosaurs Unearthed. (If I ever get the Archbishop description done, I will cite the heck out of this!) Also, Mark Witton’s Pterosaurs, the Normanpedia, and more.

I’m really glad that these journals ended up somewhere they can do some good, rather than recycled as paper pulp or dumped in a landfill somewhere.

Next up: I am going to get rid of nearly all my printed journal articles — I am guessing about 7500 pages. (I’ll keep a few that don’t seem to exist in electronic form, and a couple of others that have really nice print quality in the illustrations, such as my Janensch 1950.)

As I mentioned last time, I will be participating in the “Moral Dimensions of Open” working group at the forthcoming OSI2016 conference. Having laid out what I see as the foundational aspect of this discussion in part 0, I’d like to briefly survey some of the specific moral arguments in favour of Open — with particular reference to open access, since it’s an area that I have more experience in than open data, open innovation, and so on.


To me, the most foundational reason that access to research should be free at the point of use is this very simple one: once production work has been completed and the first copy of a paper created, each additional copy is free to produce and distribute. This means that we can create an arbitrarily large number of copies, and send them around the world, resulting in a huge increase in the world’s wealth. Not doing so is … silly.

If “silly” doesn’t sound like quite such an emphatic denunciation as might have been expected, let’s try again. When we have the option to create free wealth, refusing to do so is profoundly wasteful. We’re failing to make things better for other people, at no cost to ourselves. We are passing up the opportunity to do the most moral thing possible even though it wouldn’t cost us anything.

If I give my food to someone who is hungry, I will have less food. But if I give my PDF collection to an under-resourced researcher, doctor, policy-maker or teacher, I don’t have less knowledge. I have created free knowledge out of thin air. Why wouldn’t I do that?

If we could create free food for people who are starving, we would do it in a heartbeat, because we want people to be fed. If we could create free medicine for people who are sick, we would do it in a heartbeat, because we want people to be healthy. We can create free knowledge for people who are under-resourced — so we should do it in a heartbeat, because we want people to be educated.

To me, it’s that simple. Open access is a moral necessity because it’s morally repugnant to deny people privileges that cost us nothing to provide. I feel exactly the same way about paywalls preventing access to research as I would about mechanisms that prevented free food being created for starving people if that could be done at zero cost.

Some objections

“But it costs money to transform an author’s manuscript into a published paper.”

Yes, it does: managing peer-review, typesetting, creating metadata and so on are real costs, and publishers need to be paid for these things to happen. That is why I said access to research should be free at the point of use.

There are costs to be met at the point of production, and various ways of meeting them. We could debate what those costs are, which ones are legitimate, how high they should be, and where the money should come from. All of these practicalities are subject to legitimate disagreement between reasonable people.

But since it costs no money at all to make and distribute an additional copy of a paper, what is simply not acceptable is to prevent access.

“But distribution online is not free.”

This is an important issue to address, and to think about clearly. Angela Cochran recently asserted this on a mailing list of OSO2016 delegates:

If you throw a paper in the Internet and hope people find you, you won’t get far. Researchers publish with journals because they want their work to be discoverable. They want it in Scopus or Compendex, Web of Science, and Google scholar. This requires feeds, structured metadata, humans to follow up every time an author can’t find their papers in those places, license agreements to maintain, etc.

I submit that this is a red herring. What Angela is describing here are ancillary services. They are of real value, but they are quite separate from the issue of access. A researcher in the developing world doesn’t care whether a paper on the efficacy of new anti-malarial drugs is indexed in Scopus — she cares whether she can read and use it.

It’s perfectly reasonable to make access to papers free, but to sell subscriptions to value-added services such as the Web Of Science. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that it’s not. What is not reasonable? Conflating these two things such that the need for WOS to have a business is allowed to impede access. If value-add services are to survive as businesses, it must because the value they add is worth paying for.

“But I want to keep making an enormous amount of money for very little work.”

Sorry, can’t help you there. There is nothing moral about rent-seeking, and no moral argument for preventing the free creation of wealth in order to facilitate its continuation.

Some publishers’ arguments against open access have had this character. Many publishers’ public comments in favour of the Research Works Act, for example, were of the form “please reduce the wealth of the world for our private benefit”. I am very glad to see the frequency of such statements decreasing over the last few years. I can only hope it indicates a genuine change of heart, rather than mere PR.

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

I wanted to do a three-way comparison between my carnivoran skulls, but I’m too impatient to wait till I’ve got the fox’s skull out of its head. So here are the two I have now: the badger (left) and the cat (right):

2016-04-01 14.34.39

(Both skulls appear with their first three cervicals.)

As you can see, the badger is more impressive in every way. It’s physically bigger of course, but also much more robust, as most easily seen in the zygomatic arches and the fully fused skull. Also relevant is the huge sagittal crest, which you will recall anchored hugely oversized jaw-muscles. In comparison, the cat’s jaw muscles were like those of pussy-cats.

It’s like the difference between a tyrannosaur and an allosaur.

You can see the crest more clearly — and general robustitude — in anterodorsolateral view:

2016-04-01 14.59.39

We really do underestimate what awesome animals badgers are. One of the many reasons I would never participate in a badger cull is simple, straightforward fear.

Do not meddle in the affairs of badgers, for they are unsubtle and quick to bite your arm off.

What would the world look like if, as proposed by the Max Planck Institute, the scholarly world flipped from being dominated by subscriptions to Gold open access? I think there are three things to say.

First, incentives. A concern is sometimes expressed that when publishers are paid per paper published, they will have an incentive to want more papers to be published. Would this exacerbate the existing publish-or-perish culture where we are flooded by quantity of publications, sometimes at the expense of quality?

It’s certainly true that in a Gold OA world, the publishers would like to see more papers (and monographs) published. But whether we the academic community respond to that desire by publishing more is not a decision that the publishers get to make. This — like so many issues — comes back to the problem of what incentives apply in academia. While scholars gains rewards like promotion and tenure by publishing many papers (for example because committees evaluate people based on their H-index), it is inevitable that those scholars will seek to publish many papers — and this would be true whether in a subscription-based or Gold OA-based system. Thus I think the problem of publishing quantity rather than quality is quite independent from the problem of how we pay for publications.

Second, costs. I sometimes hear a concern is that a flip to Gold OA would create an environment where funds are tied up, and resources are not sufficient of fund new and innovative journals.

I’m sure these numbers are not new to regular readers, but it seems pretty clear that a flipped world would have much lower total costs than the present system. Here are the numbers:

The STM Report for 2015, page 6, reports total publisher income in the STM field as $10 billion for 2013, and says that about 2.5 million papers were published that year. That gives an average income per paper of $4000. (We can probably assume a broadly similar figure for non-STM papers, too.) By contrast, the Wellcome Trust’s recent report on its APC spending in 2013-14 shows an average APC of £1837, currently about $2634. This is slightly less than 2/3 what the world at large is paying per paper.

In other words, even using the relatively high APCs paid by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s 2.5 million papers per year could be published for $6.6 billion — saving $3.4 billion to spent elsewhere.

Third, markets. This one is a question, and I think it’s crucial for the prospects of a Gold-OA ecosystem: will we get an efficient market in APCs? If we do, then prices will be forced down until they are very close to costs — which publishers like Hindawi, Ubiquity Press and PeerJ have shown can be in the $400-500 range, almost literally an order of magnitude less than the world presently pays for publication. But if no true market emerges, prices will not fall — indeed publishers may have the leverage to raise APCs at rates greater than inflation, as they have been doing for subscriptions.

That is why I believe that, however tempting “APC Big Deals” are to individual libraries or consortia, they should be strenuously resisted. As with subscription Big Deals, the short-term savings (while real) would be absolutely dwarfed by the long-term losses.

If I’m right about this, then we face a tragedy of the commons during this phase of transition from subscriptions to Gold OA: it will be in the short-term interests of each library to accept a Big Deal on APCs; but again the interests of the community. We will need to communicate well, and function as a global community, to avoid falling into this trap.

[I first wrote this post as an email to a list for delegates of the OSI2016 conference. Then I realised that it’s of broader interest, and edited it into the form seen here.]