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:
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.