More on Relative Evil

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a new article out (actually published Jan 22nd) by Jennifer Howard that sets out a more nuanced view of the outcry against the RWA (the Research Works Act, otherwise known as H.R. 3699) than has been presented, I think, from corners of the blogosphere that have drawn up sharply against it, such as Mike Taylor’s articles about it at SV-POW! (here, here, and here). I tend to be pretty liberterian in regards to the actions of businesses, regardless of also being a social liberal. In this manner, I tend to align myself to the collective actions of the business’s desire to prevent governmental actions from dictating how and when it can make money, even if, in Taylor’s own words, they make “obscene profits.” For me, regardless of their financial power and richness far above that of the pleb and destitute scientist, they are a business and laws do exist to protect their interests as such. This was the basis of my disagreement with Mike Taylor and David Marjanović on the Dinosaur Mailing List, culminating in this post.

Jennifer Howard, in her article, mentions a 19 page response the AAP gave to the US OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy):

[T]he publishers’ association argued against the idea that the government should get to decide what happens to the results of research it helps support financially. “It has become necessary for publishers to pointedly remind the federal government that their ‘peer-reviewed scholarly publications’ that report, describe, explain, analyze, or comment on federally funded research do NOT ‘result from’ such research in any sense that can legally justify the assertion of federal government control over the contents or distribution of such publications,” the group said.

In other words, a lot happens between the time the government shells out money for research and the time that research appears in published, analyzed, copy-edited, peer-reviewed form. Federal money provides the impetus, but publishers’ investment of time and expertise creates the final product that everybody wants. That’s the argument the publishers’ association is pursuing, both in its comments to the White House and in its support for legislative action like the Research Works Act.

I find myself falling in tune to this argument, largely because it aligns with what I’d already said in regards to author’s choices for meeting obligations, and the matter that their monies (and the mandatory full release requirements that ensues from the publication of their results) are in large effect being forced upon the publishers without their own agreement. Some publishers, such as the Nature Publishing Group, which published Nature, already allow release after 6 months, far in advance of the NIH policy which mandates the work be released by at least a year; but they require that the work not be in the form of the final publication but of the accepted manuscript, the product that for virtually all mainstream publications is the one that comes out of peer-review and is “accepted” by the editor for publication, a document that is generally indistinct in text from that of the published version, sans formatting (there are exceptions, as these documents can be altered prior to print, by the authors or editors, etc., depending on formatting [such as the removal of text to save space in limited-space venues such as the “tabloid” journals Nature and Science]).

One major thing to note here is that open access presumes a public-as-equal relationship among readers and publishers, and that funding is largely subsidized through grants, government support, or charity, as with the PLoS network of journals. When it comes to for-profit businesses, however, a presumption is that no business is — or should be — equal: A business, like a publishing house, is there to compete with others and make money. In a way, it matters not how much money it makes, only that it does, regardless of where this money eventually goes. There is an argument, as Mike Taylor has pointed out, that Elsevier (the publisher bogeyman of choice given its fingers in US politics of late) makes so much money that it can afford to allow the public open-access to its journals, or at least some of them, and that scientists shouldn’t be restricted in sharing them. Problematically, this does interfere with the overall business model that government’s regulations “shackle” how they choose to make money, and how much, and in this case it is true that Elsevier is being told by the NIH policy that it should permit open-access posting on NIH’s PubMed Central database, regardless of the costs it may lose in regards to this. They have so much money, the argument goes, it can afford this loss!

The arguments in favor of forcing Elsevier, and other publishing houses, to capitulate to the scientists who use their resources comes off as populism, whereby the government and business should be in service to the will of not just the public, but any individual. It sets Elsevier (the “elite”) against the author scientists (the “people”), and sets them as “evil” and thus the author scientist as “good.” It serves a position of transforming the authors into the horrible dregs of society oppressed by the few elitists who, as in Apple’s famous commercial (parodied in Futurama’s episode “Future Stock”, which starts about :22 in) aired during the XVII Super Bowl:

Futurama, 2002: “Future Stock”

This all sets up a borderline Orwellian argument, being that Elsevier is there to suppress the masses, the people, by its behavior and thus must be stopped. But nothing Elsevier does in this circumstance curtails anything but sharing of a product the author willingly publishes in its pages; they do not own the product that is published, and Elsevier asks that they sign a document handing over rights to the work and its content as a prerequisite to publication. The option exists, and is not discouraged, to publish elsewhere, and several other publishers have come out in recent days to oppose SOPA/PIPA, although not quite in opposition to RWA. It is not even true that Elsevier is the only game in town, just one that enjoys a strong majority in Europe and which published several popular journals for scientists, including The Lancet.

Now, I do support the position of Mike Taylor and others on a few things:

I think Elsevier should pay for guest editors of journals, as well as reviewers. These are services generally offered at the cost of time — and no other — that is seldom compensated or even noted in the pages for which their work is apparent. While editorial work is noted, reviewers are not. There is a problem with this in general, and that’s the principle of blind peer review, where the author and reviewer will not know the participation of the other personally involved in this. While an author’s work may be very apparent from the form of the work involved, writing style, etc., the reviewer’s work is only apparent to the editor, and the author may never know who his peer reviewers were. This seems like it increases the effect of anonymity in what is actually a very interconnected web of scientists. If Elsevier (and other houses) begin compensating these reviewers, it must account for this costs publicly, and in this way I think it may coincide with the post facto release of the names of all review and editorial work in a publisher’s disclosure section of the printed work. This will take what is a known and harsh sting to the actions Elsevier has made of late, and also pull away from Elsevier’s argument that they provide the review and editing for print. As they almost never compensate these people, this seems a no-loss to them, but a loss to scientists for the purpose of open access and review, which should be public, and bared to the full, harsh light of day.

But on other things, not so much: Mike Taylor writes that “[p]ublishers do not provide peer-review. We do.” There are two sides to this particular coin, one of which is being contended here. When Mike says that scientists provide peer-review, he means that scientists are doing the peer-review itself, but little else is being considered in this service that is given. Scientists give up their time for the interests of the community to allow themselves to be called up or sent manuscripts for the purpose of review by various journals’ section, guest or chief editors. This means scientists are doing the peer-review that Elsevier (and others) argue they provide. When Elsevier (through various proxies) write that the peer-review process is provided for authors, they are also correct. As Sprouse and Serene (editor-in-chief and treasurer, respectively, of the American Physical Society) write in the New York Times (Jan 22nd, 2012):

Nevertheless, Michael B. Eisen’s implication that the peer review process is essentially free is not correct. The management of the peer review process for our 10 large journals requires 50 full-time professional editors with a Ph.D. in physics, and they must be compensated.

Note that this generally applies to the editor’s actions, but the editors of journals are those given the task of picking up the phone or choosing the email of the scientists who have made themselves available for review, and to do several things: They must prepare the manuscripts to enable “blind review” when necessary, stripping the material of identifying information on the authors; they must handle the correspondence in dealing with instruction to the reviewers on what is required, and in the response from the reviewer, and then stripping THAT response of identifying information and forwarding it to the authors of the paper under review. And they must do this for each submission to a journal, selection anonymous reviewers for the purpose of achieving some semblance of impartiality in the review process. These editors, employed by the journal, do actual work. There are editors that do work for free for several journals, and in this case, compensation becomes an issue: why aren’t Elsevier et al. providing excuses for making money for a process that they are not actually spending money on?

When anonymous peer-review is being supported by paid editors who work for the journals, published by Elsevier, Elsevier does get to say that it “provides peer-review,” because it is correct; similarly, when reviewers say that they “provide peer-review,” they are also correct, depending on what is meant here by “provide.” I think some of these debates are occurring, mostly, because there is a motive to achieve an ulterior goal, however noble, which will result in antagonism between authors and publishers — or, given the correspondence in the last two weeks, has resulted.

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17 Responses to More on Relative Evil

  1. No, Elsevier streamlines peer review, but not much more. And obviously most of the money they get from their library subscription fees doesn’t go toward their editors who do all the ‘hard work’ of emailing scientists copies of papers to review, since the company still makes those ridiculous profits.

    Seriously Jaime, your defense of these publishers is laughable. Unless you’ve paid $30 for each of the non-open-access pdfs you own, you can’t begin to back their practice without being a hypocrite.

    • This becomes semantic, Mickey. You’re taking the argument that Elsevier cannot “provide” but merely smooth the path of peer-review. Unless the peer-review process begins to occur without the use of paid editors’ work, which Elsevier employs, then Elsevier is partially responsible for the peer-review process itself, even if it is only a facilitator. You then pay for this “streamlining” process because it is taking away effort on the parts of the authors or their peers, seeking one another out to ensure there is some form of control on the quality or subject of the publication.

      I’m not sure what hypocrisy you are referring to. Have I purchased, personally, all of my pdfs? No. Some were given to me, I requested others, and many were provided during a period when they did not have costs associated with them to begin with. Many are authors’ proofs, and have no costs attached to them at all. I would, in reality, like to live in a world without piracy, an ideal I cannot financially support at the moment. Alternately, I would like to live in a wolrd where piracy is never an option, something far, far more liberal and community-driven, trade-economy and not resource-based e.g., “gold standard” … but I do not think it is possible.

      But I’d like to think the corporate interest is a viable interest, and note that we have no right to tell the corporations, however atrocious their actions to some, are “evil” in general. This is not done because I work for one of these companies and must defend them, although almost every one of my employers has been a national or international corporation who have done some pretty massively horrible things that serve a truly upper-end, .05%-er favoring purpose of padding some fews’ pocketbooks at the expense of those who use their service and those who provide the service in the first place.

      • I agree publishers are partially responsible for peer review, I just don’t think their part is significant.

        The hypocrisy I refer to is that on the one hand, you say we shouldn’t legislate the publishers’ practices, because corporations have a right to charge whatever people are willing to pay. Yet on the other hand, you yourself don’t pay for their products at all, and acquire them in ways publishers would frown upon. Thus you’re denying the company’s right to make money just as directly (and more illegally) as legislation would.

        • Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself. — Samuel Johnson (1750), The Rambler, 14

          I deny no company’s right to sell an item if I did not pay them for the copy I have. Does this mean a person who gives gifts is a hypocrite for not giving one, or saying that another must pay for their version from the store when they were handed the thing come Christmas Day?

          • Just because a famous dead man claimed it unjust to call a hypocrite a hyocrite does not make it so. If hypocrisy is “the state of pretending to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that one does not actually have”, then you’re still guilty of it. You may think it is better to buy than to pirate when you have the resources to buy a product, but obviously you think that all considered it is better for you to pirate than to buy in your current circumstances, or you wouldn’t have chosen to pirate in the first place. You think piracy is the best thing to do in this situation, as opposed to doing scientific work poorly, working 100 hours a week, selling your posessions, etc.. And since basically all scientists are in your same financial situation of not having thousands of dollars to buy the pdfs needed for their work, you’re a hypocrite for saying we should all let the publishers make money, when you actually think it’s best for people in our situation to not let them make money (via pirating their products).

            As for your own sentences there, saying you deny no company’s right to sell an item if you >steal< the copy you have is patently untrue. You denied them the right to sell the copy that you pirated. And your gift example is flawed because the giver still payed for the copy they gave you, so the company still made money.

          • You presume then that I am pretending for a virtue I argue for. Do I state I possess this virtue, but act against this virtue in others? No. That is why I’m not a hypocrite. If you wish to make a clearer point about accusing me of theft, then claiming that I am telling others that they cannot steal, then by demonstrating this theft, you succeed and I am “pirate” and a “hypocrite.” If, however, the fact of either of these depend on whether I do steal, and that I say you cannot. In the latter, especially, you are wrong: I say you — and by extension, all of us — should not steal, not that I, nor your, nor anyone else does not.

            None of this has anything to do with Elsevier, actually, or any business, but by extending to them the property of owner, do you think it is right to deprive them of an object that costs them money merely because: 1, they did not pay the author of a piece within, 2, did not pay the typesetter of the print, 3, did not pay the student who wrote the paper to dictation? Do you think a US Supreme Court Justice is a hypocrite when he puts his name on an opinion if it was written by someone else, partially dictated, etc.? Many opinions seems to be written largely by law clerks!

            I think perhaps you extend your defense of what are in some cases rather extreme antipathies borne not yourself of experience but by your own righteous indignation: You tell me that I cannot support Elsevier in one purpose, but it is okay to ignore them in their other purposes which you can agree with (such as distribution, availability, and quality of product). The same should be true of Taylor & Francis, Springer, and all of the rest.

    • Schenck says:

      Saying Mr. Headden is a hypocrite is pretty unfair, just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean their evil, hell it doesn’t even necessarily mean that they’re /wrong/.

  2. Schenck says:

    There is a bit of strangeness in this; the onus is on the /scientist/ to /not publish/ in publications that don’t meet the gov’s requirements. It’s not really some dutch company’s fault that a scientist sent them a paper for publication when they shouldn’t’ve.

    Publically funded research /should/ be public, Elsevier is /nuts/ to think that it shouldn’t be, and if it takes a law to ensure that it’s public then so be it. But yeah the original responsibility is with the scientists. There’s an online petition going around, but that’s obviously meaningless, I haven’t heard of any drop in the number of articles submitted to Elsevier et al’s journals, or a huge increase in submission to things like the PLOS journals, so the scientists clearly aren’t keeping up their end of the deal. It does look more and more like what they want is to be able to publish in Nature and the like AND be able to freely distribute the same article right away.

    And notice we still haven’t seen, to my knowledge, a single professional society, research institute, or University set out a policy requiring members/employees to, for example, not publish in Nature (and of course they won’t, they want to be able to say ‘our members/faculty publish in high impact journals’. This actually runs back into your earlier points about impact ratings.)

    • Honestly, I would prefer something along the lines of what David Dobbs mentions here, namely that we can merely jettison peer-review and go to open source/access publishing and leave the antiquated paper system behind. This will drastically reduce the costs Elsevier seems to be advocating force its prices to go up. Natural selection on a publisher level. Forcing Elsevier to bow to the heel of the masses is NOT the path we should be taking.

  3. Schenck says:

    Also, Elsevier and other publishing companies are OBVIOUSLY providing a helluva service, the high impact journals have played a tremendous role in the development and history of science, you can’t deny that. Sure there /could’ve/ been a free, public access way of doing this, but it never happened. It’s like saying ‘well we didn’t need guys like Henry Ford to make the automobile popular and available’. Maybe it could’ve happened another way, but it didn’t, AND everyone (in this analogy if not in the real world) is still buying Fords and asking to supervise their assembly line.

    • In your car example, obviously, Institutional subscriptions to journals is like a company issued Benz or BMW, but people can still afford to buy a second hand Ford or Toyota; but in the case of academic publishing, individuals cannot afford to keep buying downloads let alone subscribe to all the journals they need. And we don’t have the option of second-hand papers because that’s considered ‘piracy’.

      • What individuals can do is afford to send their services away from those who charge for the lower-cost of the second-hand cars. If someone offers the cars for free, why pay to begin with? One solution to piracy is to enable lower or no cost resources. This means that there is less desire to pirate the product in the first place.

        In digital gaming, the use of DRM (digital rights media) to ensure valid use of the product is enforced electronically, whereby a constant online connection is the only way to play the game, even if you weren’t connected to any other player, and wanted to play your game by yourself. This led to a mass exodus away from games like Diablo III which Blizzard then insisted required you to be online connected to their servers to play by yourself. Some games, however, realized that removing these restrictions have enabled less attempts to “get around” them, and less willingness to hack the system or game so as to play it; they were more willing to pay for the game and services when the DRM was less draconian. There’s more here.

        Understand, that I think Elsevier does wrong in this regard, but the scientists who choose to publish with them knew in many cases what they were getting into, and complaining after the fact shouldn’t be a legitimate reason for Elsevier to bow in capitulation.

        • Nick Gardner says:

          Re: Diablo III, until the game is released for public purchase, we do not know whether this will be true. The beta is very popular and a similar system is in place for Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and that doesn’t appear to have detracted much from the game’s popularity or from the number of purchases made of the game… I don’t know the current number of copies sold, but in the first year, over 4.5 million copies were sold, so I wouldn’t consider that too much of a failure and I’d suspect similar retail success will occur for Diablo III.

          • I must admit I am biased in this regard, but as a Diablo II fan, I was quite surprised and not a little upset to hear about a variety of things done by Blizzard to stall piracy on the one hand and gold-sellers on the other. The first was the institution of a DRM, which really hurts the ability to go at the game solo for an enjoyable experience, especially while offline, mobile, etc. The second was incorporating RMT into the game, a store which allows you to purchase … gold. You are able to directly purchase in-game currency, from which you may buy … anything. This then detracts from actually playing through the game to begin with, just emptying your pocket book; the richer folks will have essentially any end-game item as soon as they are available, the poor folks not so much, leading to a financial disparity reflected by the real world. Forcing online-only play itself is a major detractor in the fandom, and my trawling through comments threads didn’t support more than diehard Diablo II multiplayer fans from making pleasing or “Oh, well, it’s for the game” style comments. The art style, also, appears to have suffered, becoming more cartoonish with World of WarCraft tie in. StarCraft fans are a whole ‘nother matter: the game is fueled by South Korean players, and its is quite unlikely that a drop of ALL American players would stall profiting off of that game at all.

  4. …hmm…I don’t think the problem is specific to Elsevier, but pretty widespread across the academic publishing industry – I’m not anti-Elsevier, I’m merely unhappy with the whole situation.

    And since, the “publish or perish” culture locks researchers into submitting to journals that are provided by for-profit publishers because of their high impact factors, it’s a bit unfair to criticise us of knowing what we’re getting into and complaining later. Perhaps the situation is changing due to increased popularity and citation index of PLoS ONE, but old habits die hard… I don’t know if search committees favour Nature or Science articles over PLoS ONE or similar but it’s safer to have those, right?

    What you’re saying with the lower-cost alternative makes sense; but try convincing Elsevier and the likes of doing that.

    I find it rather odd that publishers make profit out of selling publicly funded research…I mean, the ONS or the UKBA here in the UK don’t go around publishing their research results in a for-profit magazine that sells the results back to the politicians!

    • This post from Cameron Neylon seems to suggest a third player, those who pay for the research, the funders. What rights do they have in the ownership of the product when a researcher publishes? Moreover, when a researcher says something about his paper, and gets uppity when someone contests its contents, are they arguing about a material thing they own, or an immaterial stepping stone on the path of further knowledge? Is it so permanent a thing that this stepping stone be gilded but things that ask you step over them not so glittery?

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