This is the fifth 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.

What I want to look at this time is the efficiency of sharing: as Glyn Moody pointed out on Twitter, the more people share, the more others can build on it, then share, then build — and so on. The work each of us does becomes easier, and better, and more productive, because of the work others have already done. We become partners in the great enterprise of research.


This is hardly a novel observation, of course. Isaac Newton famously said it best, in a letter to Robert Hooke on 15 February 1676. Although he was not by nature a modest man, he made the rather brilliant observation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

But the great thing about this is that the quote itself stands on the shoulders of a giant — it’s a modified version of an earlier observation by John of Salisbury (1120 – October 25 1180), who wrote:

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we were like dwarfs seated on the shoulders of giants. If we see more and further than they, it is not due to our own clear eyes or tall bodies, but because we are raised on high and upborne by their gigantic bigness.

And as Johnny-boy makes clear, he was also not the originator of this profound observation — it was due to Bernard of Chartres, who died shortly after John of Salisbury was born.

What’s happened here? Newton has not merely lifted John-of-S.’s quote: he has substantially improved on it. Newton’s version is pithier and more striking: there’s good reason why it’s the version everyone quotes. He built on the earlier work of J.-of-Salisbury, and the yet earlier work of B.-of-C., to make something new and valuable.


And this of course is the whole purpose of scholarly communication. It’s why we have academic publishers: to make it possible for us to progress our fields by standing on each other’s shoulders.

Unfortunately, the publishers are mostly standing on our toes.

No-one intended this. No-one started an academic publisher for the money (at least, not until recently), but out of genuine desire to advance scholarship. In the pre-Internet era, journals were simply the state of the art for disseminating information. And since each printed copy of a journal cost money to make and distribute, a fee was quite properly charged for each copy. There was no alternative.

All that changed with the advent of the Internet in general, and the World Wide Web in particular. Now that the Web is used for so many things — commerce, media streaming, blogging, auctions, cat photos — it’s easy to forget what it was invented for. But we needn’t forget, because we have archived copies of the very first email ever sent by Tim Berners-Lee about this new “World Wide Web” thingy that he had come up with:


Yes, folks, you read it right. The whole purpose of the Web was to enable the free sharing of scholarly publications. It was a technology given to the world for the betterment of information sharing.

Viewed in this light, it’s clear that open access is nothing more than the Web working right. And the continuation of printed-on-paper journal limitations by other means (i.e. paywalls) constitutes a deliberate impediment to all the advances we could be making now that the technology has improved.

By happy coincidence, Peter Murray-Rust has blogged just today about some of those possible advances — in this case, based on content mining:

We have already shown that mining detects errors in the literature which can be put right – indeed our technology could be valuable in the reviewing and editing of material for publication. Another is the sheer scale – we could mine the whole literature for – say – breeding grounds and create systematic maps. That brings benefits. But there are also dangers – it may pinpoint endangered areas or species. But this is the inevitable challenge of the Digital Century – we have to learn how to live with and manage massive new knowledge.

(The bolding of the last part is mine, not Peter’s.)

We’re facing the possibility of such an enormous amount of new knowledge that one of the challenges we will be presented with is how to live with it. We have the technology to stand on the shoulders of millions of giants simultaneously. What a great problem to have! And how tragic when 20th-Century technology actively prevents us from reaching this state.

This shoulders-of-giants argument regarding Open is a very positive one. I like that. Some pro-open arguments can be rather negative: “publishers make too much profit”, “the public shouldn’t be prevented from reading what it paid for” and so on. But this one is wholly positive: open access, and open scholarship in general, enables us to do much more!

I’ve leave the last word to Cameron Neylon, and a blog-post that I have often cited as a vision of our possible future: Network Enabled Research: Maximise scale and connectivity, minimise friction:

We need to get as much material online as fast as we can. We need to connect it up, to make it discoverable, to make sure that people can find and understand and use it. And we need to ensure that once found those resources can be easily transferred, shared, and used. And used in any way – at network scale the system is designed to ensure that resources get used in unexpected ways. At scale you can have serendipity by design, not by blind luck.

Let’s not accept systems and conventions that prevent this happening.

[ Finish up with part 5: whose responsibility is this?]

This is the fourth 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.

It’s widely recognised that the established scholarly publishers skim an awful lot of money off the top of research budgets. The Big Four (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Informa) all have profit margins in the range 32–42%. For Elsevier alone, a 38.9% profit on revenue of £2126M (page 17 of their own 2013 annual report) represents £826M diverted away from research each year – a figure more than sixteen times the £50M that the Finch Report estimated as the annual cost of transition to an all-open-access ecosystem.


Elsevier representatives will point out in their defence that some open-access publishers have even higher profit-margins: for example Hindawi’s founder claimed in a 2012 interview a net profit of $3.3M on revenue of $6.3M for the first half of 2012 – a profit margin of 52.4%. Even PLOS, an avowedly non-profit organisation, runs at an operating surplus of 27% in 2013 and 16% in 2014. (Expenses of $37M against revenue of $50.8M in 2013; expenses of $40.7 million against revenue of $48.5 million according to their 2014 report).

Can this be justified? I have three thoughts.

First, the emphasis on profit margins – that is, profit as a percentage of revenue – is misleading. Hindawi’s median APC is $600 (calculated from their listing). So a 52.4% profit on a typical paper represents $314 leaving academia and going into shareholders’ pockets; whereas 38.9% of a typical Elsevier paper, with an APC of $3000, is $1167. So when the Wellcome Trust funds publication in a hybrid OA Elsevier journal, it diverts nearly four times as much cash out of academia than when its authors use Hindawi.

Second, much depends on the destination of the profits. When Elsevier or Hindawi profit from publishing, that money is lost to academia. By contrast, PLOS’s operating surplus – $240 of the $1495 APC on a PLOS ONE paper – is ploughed back into their mission “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication”. The same obviously applies to society publishers such as the Royal Society.

Third, when it comes to Gold OA, what really matters is not how much profit a publisher makes, but simply how much they charge to publish. To funding agencies, the price of an APC is money that can’t be spent elsewhere, whether it goes to publisher profits or merely covers publisher costs. It’s better to pay a $400 APC of which $200 is profit than a $500 APC of which $100 is profit. APC funds can be more effectively used when the price of publishing goes down, and it really doesn’t matter much whether that is achieved by publishers cutting profits or cutting costs.

And this in the end is the conclusive argument against legacy publishers such as Elsevier: irrespective of what the profit margins are, the prices are simply too expensive. There is no legitimate need for the Wellcome Trust to continue spending an average of £1837 ($2595) on APCs, mostly with legacy publishers, when newer born-digital publishers such as PeerJ and Ubiquity Press can do an objectively better job for much less money.

So I am not really convinced that profit margins are a big issue, or even that they are very morally significant at all. In the end, Gold-OA publishing is a service provided in exchange for a fee. A company that can do that very efficiently at a given price is surely no more immoral than one that does the same job less efficiently at the same price, and so has lower profits.

[Next time, part 4: “on the shoulders of giants”]

This post is recycled, almost word-for-word, from one that I wrote for the Royal Society in May last year. I’ve updated some of the figures, and added a brief prologue and epilogue, but that’s all. My views have not changed.

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”]

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”]

From 19th-22nd April this year, it will be my privilege to participate in OSI2016, the first annual meeting of the Open Scholarship Initiative. (I do think this project could have come up with a name that has a different acronym: OSI was previously the Open Society Institute, which was instrumental in getting open access off the ground — not to mention the Open System Interconnection seven-layer networking model. But never mind.)

The OSI meeting is not a conventional conference. Instead, much of its work will consist of meetings of fifteen separate groups, each considering and discussing a different question or issue: for example, What Is Publishing? What Is Open? Who Decides? Peer Review. Embargoes. I will be working in the Moral Dimensions Of Open group, along with a stellar (and slightly intimidating) cast.

I’m delighted to be on this group, because my view is that it’s the most foundational of them all. Everything else we do in the Open space flows from our moral position on Open. If we get this right, then even the thorniest matters of implementation become much clearer — because we have a foundation to build on.

Now, I know this attitude is not universally held. Publishing consultant Joe Esposito gave a very different perspective in an interview with Richard Poynder in 2013 (and let me emphasise how much I appreciate Joe’s candour in this — I am sure his views are shared by plenty of other people who are less forthcoming, and it’s very helpful to have them laid out clearly):

Q: What in your view is the single most important task that the OA movement should focus on today?
A: Getting rid of the idealists. Let pragmatism abound!

Joe is proudly pragmatic about ways of making money from publishing,
whether via paywalls or APCs, and elsewhere has argued that:

Access is a privilege of membership (e.g., being a student at a university), not a right. Can we stop this debate now and simply agree that we have no common ground upon which to base a conversation?

So perhaps the most fundamental disagreements on open scholarship are not between those with different views about its moral basis, but between those who have a view and those who avowedly have none. If open access, for example, is just a different economic model for publishers, then we may find that some of our fellow-travellers never had the same intentions as us, but merely happened to be travelling on the same road for a while.

So in remaking scholarship, and especially scholarly publishing, we need to bear in mind the parable told by G. K. Chesterton in the introduction to his book Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

That’s why, when I had the privilege of addressing the 11th Berlin conference on open access in 2013, I used my slot to remind the audience that, as my talk’s title put it, open access is about sharing, unity and sanity, not about money. Because I was addressing a more senior audience than I usually speak to — one that necessarily has to think more about practicalities, finances, ways and means — I wanted to take the opportunity to remember that those are not the issues that gave birth to open scholarship; rather, it started out as an unabashedly idealistic movement (as reading any of the three
great open-access declarations will show you). I don’t want us to walk away from that high-ground and be reduced to thinking only about practicalities, important though they are.

Publishers and their associates often say — rightly, as far as they go — that “Scientific and technical publishing is a business“. But no-one goes into that business because of the money they can make. Everyone involved in research surely chose that business because their eyes were on a higher prize. Doing and publishing research is a mission; far from “getting rid of the idealists“, we should cherish them; and we should encourage rather than curb our own idealistic tendencies.

So my first and most important conviction about the moral dimension of Open is that it exists, that it’s crucial, and that it’s absolutely not something for us to feel ashamed of, as though it’s an adolescent phase that we’ll grow out of once we become old enough and wise enough to understand pragmatism. The moral dimension is what gives us a goal for our pragmatism to work towards.

All depends on what is the philosophy of Light.

[Read on to part 1: “marginal cost is zero, so price should be zero”]