On the philosophy of what research is for

August 8, 2019

I’m a bit shocked to find it’s now more than five years since Robert Harington’s Scholarly Kitchen post Open Access: Fundamentals to Fundamentalists. I wrote a response in the comments, meaning to also post it here, but got distracted, and then half a decade passed. Here it is, finally. The indented parts are quotes from Harington.

I must admit to being rather tired of the fundamentalism that pervades discussions around open access policies and business models. On the one hand there are the advocates, and through the laws of conservation of energy, the equal and opposite reaction of anti-open access advocacy. There seems little room for rational debate about open access in the midst of such an antagonistic atmosphere.

It’s always a powerful rhetorical move to call your opponent a fundamentalist. It’s also a lazy one. It absolves you from the tedious responsibility of bothering to understand what the opponent actually wants: just dismiss him has a fundamentalist and call it done. I’d hope we’re better than that. At best, this seems like a fine demonstration of the principle that “there seems little room for rational debate about open access in the midst of such an antagonistic atmosphere”.

You want a rational debate? You want to talk about fundamentals? Fine, let’s do that. Here is the most fundamental question of all: what is research for? Our answer to this will profoundly affect every stance we adopt regarding publishing, OA, researcher evalution and more.

The greatest problem we have in discussing these issues is when person A assumes right off the bat that person B has the same answer to that fundamental question, and is then surprised to find that B disagrees over numerous implementation details. All those details flow from the fundamental mismatch. A and B are literally trying to solve two different problems — no wonder they can’t agree on the solution!

So what is research for? Here are three possible answers.

A. Some people believe (or maybe I should say assume) that research is for the world — for the betterment of the lot of society as a whole, the eradication of illness, the understanding of the environment, and generally the benefit of humanity. As pleasant side-effects, it also feeds publishing businesses and advances researchers’ careers.

B. Some people believe (or assume) that research is primarily for the benefit of the economy: that the principle purpose of the whole process is the financial benefit that accrues to publishers and related professions. As pleasant side-effects, it also advances the world’s knowledge and advances researchers’ careers.

C. Some people believe (or assume, or at least give the impression of assuming) that research is mostly about the careers of researchers — about giving them a way to prove their merit and advance up the career ladder. As pleasant side-effects, it also advances the world’s knowledge and feeds publishing businesses.

All of these fundamental positions exist. (There may be others that I missed.) We could probably all classify various individuals into these groups (but I’ll resist the temptation to throw in examples, as that would surely result in an epic sidetrack).

Notice that one can’t reach one of these three positions by any amount of thought about what happens within the research/publication ecosystem. It’s more fundamental than that. That decision has to come from somewhere outside. For example, my own position is no secret: I am an “A”, and the reason is because I feel it follows from the Golden Rule (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”, Luke 6:31) — probably the most universally agreed ethical principle in any religion (and among those who profess none).

And so when Robert Harrington asks:

The real debate here is to understand more about the motivations and needs of a researcher, who may or may not be funded directly. What is the best business model that will allow a researcher to publish work effectively and allow readers access to that work?

That is really two ——quite separate questions that may have completely different answers: 1, what business model will allow a researcher to publish work effectively?; and 2, what business model will allow readers access to that work? If you are an “A”, you’ll care most about the second question; if you’re a “C” you’ll care about the first question; and if you’re a “B” you might still be thinking about the business model mentioned at the start of the question.

It’s fruitless to expect “A”s, “B”c and “C”s to agree on an answer to a question when each group is hearing a different question.

Here’s another example:

The real story here is that the rights and desires of academics are being represented by organizations that do not reflect their needs, and that perhaps do not even understanding them. There is a form of fundamentalism that dictates to academics that this is what you need; just let us lead the way and we will make things right for you.

This statement suggests a “C” mindset: that the rights and desires of researchers are paramount. But if the organisations in question are “A”s (as for example you’d expect the Alliance for Taxpayer Access or RCUK to be), then this complaint is a non-issue. Of course they don’t reflect researchers’ desires — that’s not what they’re there for. They reflect the needs of broader society (which are often aligned with those of researchers, but by no means always).

That’s not a bug. That’s a feature.

And similarly:

I would suggest that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a subscription model.

This may be true for “B”s (who might prefer the subscription model because they think it yields the most revenue) and for “C”s (who might want to place their work in a specific paywalled journal that is well regarded in their field). But it’s much less likely for “A”s, who see great public benefit in free access, and conversely great harm in arbitrary barriers.

So there you go. Fundamentals.



10 Responses to “On the philosophy of what research is for”

  1. Zach Miller Says:

    Whenever you post the on the nonsense that flows from Scholarly Kitchen, I always strongly feel that their people are being WOEFULLY disingenuous in their arguments, and in doing so, make it incredibly easy to see their true colors: we’re in this for the money.

    They don’t care about arguments from the other side, because as you say, they’re coming at this from a different set of values, but they shouldn’t pretend that open access just doesn’t work and isn’t viable. Disingenuity (is that a word?) really grinds my gears.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    To be fair, the SK post I was responding to here is now five years old, and it’s been several years since I was anything like a regular reader. They might have changed significantly in that time.

    But yes, there certainly have been times on the SK when the mercenary motive has a appeared a little more clearly than some of the authors might have intended.

  3. LeeB. Says:

    You could also ask at a fundamental level must research be for anything; or is it just a response to the basic human sense of curiosity, asking what the heck is going on and just trying generally to understand bits of the universe that seem especially interesting.
    This sense of curiosity is like a child’s and seems perhaps a retention into adulthood of a juvenile characteristic in some people.
    Of course on a societal level research has costs and should therefore be for something even if only to justify allowing it to occur.
    However societies that turn clever people loose and basically let them go and learn interesting things seem to have done very well from what has been learned over the last few hundred years.
    Incidentally the invention of the printing press and the subsequent propagation of knowledge to the masses is considered important historically; but I think an even more important change is going to occur when everything is open access and bright kids grow up being able to learn whatever interests them at whatever level they are capable of comprehending.

    Also important is going to be the spread of mobile phones with internet access to the more disadvantaged parts of the planet; potentially everyone on the planet is going to be able to self educate.

    The brightest children everywhere are going to become noticeable and be able to get a good education; also they are going to be able to point out unknown or rare plants, animals or fossil locations in their areas.
    This is going to result in a further explosion of knowledge.

  4. Oleg Gorfinkel Says:

    This is a very useful start for a deeper analysis, Mike. I agree that it’s important to begin by distinguishing between the three motivations. An additional observation is that there are certainly quite a few people in each of these camps who do understand and care about the needs of those in the others. I would, indeed, hope that it is through this mutual understanding and collaboration that eventually ALMOST everybody’s needs can be meaningfully met.

    I say “almost,” because the people whose needs will probably NEVER be compatible with the rest are the investors in the publishing business. Not the editors, proofreaders, designers; just the investors. I don’t think this would be any great loss to the rest, though, because, unlike in other types of business, a proper peer-reviewed publishing platform doesn’t necessarily require a huge capital investment. In fact, I believe the first decent attempt at such a project by a non-profit foundation (such as OSF, for example) would most likely be a runaway success that would become a far greater threat to mainstream publishers (or rather, their INVESTORS) than even SciHub has been.

    This wouldn’t even need to be so complicated: the researchers would publish their original articles freely on such a platform with a “submitted” status), then those who have registered as reviewers would have their free pick of what to review, or not. That would be first filter that would select relevant and good-quality research (who would want to bother reviewing garbage?), and it would pretty much obviate the need for screening editors. When at least one reviewer has accepted the paper for review, its status would change to “under review,” and then a process of public back-and-forth would ensue between the reviewer(s) and the author, whereby the latter would either accept and satisfy the former’s suggestions or reject them. Once a paper has garnered a certain number of recommendations for publication (and has not exceeded a certain threshold for negative reviews), its status would change to “reviewed,” and that would basically be equivalent to what is now known as “publication.”

    Naturally, this wouldn’t be the last step, and post-publication discussion could continue, which may either lead to cementing the paper’s, and the author’s, reputation, or on the contrary, stir a healthy debate that would advance knowledge and future research (and might even result in the original reviewers retracting their approval — hence, the equivalent of a “retraction”).

    What such a system would accomplish is to satisfy the needs of pretty much all the current stakeholders in the research ecosystem, except, as I have previously suggested, the investors. A scheme like this could be financed either through very affordable membership fees, or advertising, or a combination of the two.

    What do you think?

  5. Oleg Gorfinkel Says:

    Oh, and somehow I very much doubt that Scholarly Kitchen posters will be changing the nature of their message, or even their tone, anytime soon. As time goes by, they only seem to be feeling more and more besieged, and that rarely brings out the best in anyone. Of course, they might change their minds if they could only see that while they work for corporations, they ARE NOT the corporations, and they would still have a good place in a fairer ecosystem if they helped create it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen…

  6. Pandelis Says:

    The SK post desperately asks for a “Business model” because it clearly comes from the perspective of a “B”. By definition, in a capitalist market a business strives for profit maximisation, which does not necessarily imply product optimisation. The thing to note is that today research can be published and communicated without capitalist intermediaries. The required infrastructure and services can be provided by public institutions, libraries and their librarians —certain non-trivial technical tweaks are necessary but certainly doable. The entire discussion for sustainable “business models” is promoted by for-profit companies to mislead the rest from this simple truth. One step forward would be to eradicate the capitalist vocabulary for a product that should be regarded and treated as a public good.

    In reply to Oleg, different flavours of the platform you describe already exist and have been around for years without remarkable success (e.g., http://www.sjscience.org), partly because A’s live and have to adapt in a world of B’s and C’s.

  7. Rugosidens Excelsus Says:

    I am an “A” myself, but I still wonder: Do these people have anything against open access other than the fact that they don’t make as much money?

  8. Oleg Gorfinkel Says:

    @Rugosidens Excelsus
    From what I can see, they have no problem with OA at all, as long as they can milk it for at least the same amount of cash. That’s why pretty much all the publishers now offer the OA option, whereby the author can choose to shell out thousands of dollars just for the privilege of getting their article seen by the world. This whole model only made sense when publishing was a paper business requiring major investment. Now, the only thing they are charging all that money for is curating the submission process and then doing a minimal amount of proofreading and layout. And this is the only business in which the people doing the work to produce a good are not only left unpaid, but actually have to pay from their own pocket to get that good into the hands of the consumers. I am only surprised that the “C”-type people are content to go along with this system and haven’t rebelled against it en masse so far. I realize it sort of “works” for those who are already established and work for institutions with deep pockets, but in the end, they still suffer under this system for quite a number of reasons.

    Yes, and there have been a few other similar efforts that haven’t gone very far. But, in all of these cases, it was a very small-scale, private initiative, not backed by a major foundation with the clout to get it off the ground. That’s why I mentioned OSF, because I think it would take THAT kind of backing to make it work.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    There is one thing that’s important to say about the Scholarly Kitchen, in its sort-of defence: it doesn’t speak with one voice — not even close — and the philosophy, policies and goals of one blogger there may be very different from those of others. So we should be careful not to tar them all with the same brush. But it certainly was true, as of the point where I gave up on the site a few years ago, that the overall trend was very much a Brexit-like wish to return to the good old days when publishers were real publishers, and scholars knew their place.

  10. Marco Says:

    God bless you “A” kind of fundamwntalist! Great analysis the best non-sauropods post I suppose.

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