03 February 2012

Should Tax Payer Funded Research Be Free to Tax Payers?

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy recently requested public comment on long-term preservation and public access to "the results of federally funded research, including peer-reviewed scholarly publications". As part of this request, they published letters from over three hundred individuals representing editorial boards of scholarly journals, scholarly societies, university libraries, philanthropies, publishing companies, and private companies, as well as individual scholars. (Link here.) 

These sources represent a fascinating record of a highly complex skein of issues. It is clear that many of the editors of journals recognize the value-added by for-profit and non-profit publishing houses. They mention peer-review, copy-editing, indexing, cataloging, formatting, and production costs. Representatives of the publishing industry similarly argue that much of the value they add is invisible to networked users. Some mention that the debates for publishing online miss the important fact that 1/5 of the globe remains without access to an electrical grid (to say nothing of actual telecommunications infrastructure). For peripheral, poor, and developing countries, the production of hard-copy remains the single best means of ensuring access to scholarly knowledge. In other words, moving towards open digital sources in post-industrial nations might well have a negative impact on social mobility and education in developing nations.  

Scholarly societies also largely condemn these attempts to make scholarly information available to the public freely. These opponents largely argue that the if the US government created a platform for publishing on-line, it would have two unintended consequences: 1) it would make the government a direct competitor with those scholarly societies, which would mean that they would see their subscriptions fall and thus overtime become financially insolvent, and 2) that if the federal government began publishing federally funding research on-line it would have the effect of further centralizing scientific, technological, and scholarly policy in government.

One of the advantages of scholarly societies, these authors argue, is that they advocate for the professional autonomy of researchers and scholars who may well research topics and publish results that do not accord well with current political and public opinion but do have implications for future public policy. These societies also claim that they protect author's copyrights.Their fear is that the US government already represents a very large force in dictating the direction of basic and translational research and that additional incursion by the government into the publishing landscape would further quash research into politically unpopular topics. At the same time, organizations that already struggle to defend the autonomy of scientists and scholars would find themselves losing their monetary basis and thus also the little political power they currently possess.

Aligned against these critics are various factions of public and university librarians and archivists, science journalists, science magazine editors, bloggers, right and left-wing politically-engaged academics, private philanthropies, consumer-advocates, and legal experts. Their critique largely rests upon an Enlightenment conviction that open access ensures social and cultural progress, and also the conviction that publishing houses and scholarly societies represent an older, somewhat corrupt, and in any case monopoly order, that acts as gatekeepers for knowledge with the goal of respectively protecting profits or maintaining a veritable and exclusionary Solomon's house. They argue that tax-payers, having already supported the costs of research, should have the right to access the research free of charge. They suggest that one of the largest costs carried by private corporations that engage in applied research is the direct costs associated with purchasing access to scholarly knowledge. They argue that the publishing landscape is rapidly changing and that government recognition of this fact would help universities and research institutions begin to think about how their future policies in regards to publishing. 

In general, these factions are aware of the limitations of the current  publishing model. They recognize that it is slow and costly. Librarians - in particular those from R1 libraries - are aware that the cost spiral is slowly strangling their missions. Many see the costs of maintaining large research libraries as being directly borne by students, who have often seen double-digit tuition increases. They appear also to be a technologically savvy group of individuals. Twitter, Tumbler, blogging, social media like academia.edu or facebook, pod casts, as well as other means of information dissemination, suggest to them that the work of scholars and researchers can now be circulated and exchanged by individuals who are curious about the world and determined to share with others what they know and have learned. They point to tools that can evolve from open access, including data mining, metadata research surveys, and mass data analysis.They appear to be largely idealistic that the information will be used for good purpose, that all author's intentions are usually merely to advance knowledge and therefore not-encumbered by conflicts-of-interest, and they believe that changing the information infrastructure will bring more knowledge (not less) to the developing world, especially as mobile phone technology becomes more readily available.

In looking at all of these letters and briefs, I find myself wondering where the humanities and social sciences fit into them. It is not clear to me that all forms of scholarly knowledge will find themselves supported by tax payers. That does not make that knowledge less valuable. But more open access publishing might have the unintended consequence of further marginalizing knowledge that I think many of us recognize as intrinsically and extrinsically valuable. Nor is clear to me that the costs of publishing these materials, which are cheap now, will continue to be affordable. 

Food for thought? I don't know. As a blogger, I largely side with the open access folks. But the complexity of these issues is deeper than I think some of the more glibly pro-open access have recognized. We should not be naive.

1 comment:

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