August 31, 2004

Open access again

In a recent post, I linked to a preprint of a paper by Perruchet and Rey that severely criticizes an earlier paper by Fitch and Hauser. The topic is an important one, which interests people from many walks of life: the nature of cognitive differences between humans and non-human primates. I've given you links to both papers, but unless you've got a subscription to Science, you can't read Fitch and Hauser's side of the story, and you'll have to be satisfied with the picture presented in my earlier descriptions or in Perruchet and Rey's summary.

To be entitled to read an article from Science on line, you either need to be a member of the AAAS -- which will cost you $130/year if you're in the U.S., and more for foreigners -- or you need to access it through the web site of a subscribing library. I think that every working scientist ought to be a member of the AAAS, but for people who are not in the biz, and who might be interested in just a few articles a year, $130 is a pretty steep price. And unless you're entitled to use a library that gives you remote access by proxy, you'd have to make a special trip to the library IRL, which not many people will do just to learn a bit more about a topic that's not essential to their job or their health.

You can also pay $10 "in order to have access to one article from Science for the next 24 hours from the computer you are currently using". That's not much of a bargain, in my opinion, given that a year's subscription to the New Yorker Magazine costs $36.95. And the New Yorker pays its writers and editors!

Fernando Pereira recently took up this general problem, in reaction to a letter to the Economist from Frank Spilhaus, Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union. Fernando wrote:

One might naïvely assume that scientific societies would be for wider access to science. But, like the guilds of old, their power is tied to restricting the access to knowledge. They are some of the worst offenders in the scandalous inflation of journal prices, under the pretext that their journal revenues provide important services for their members. In the US, scientific societies are non-profits, under the assumption that they work in the public interest. But by that they seem to understand the narrow interests of their bureaucracies, and maybe the only slightly broader interests of their members, and only accidentally the broad public interest. Is there a more important service for a scientific society than maximizing access to new science? At some point, inquiring legislators might start asking how the public interest is served by societies placing tolls on the distribution of research results paid for by the public. Anti-OA agitators continue to spread FUD about "author pays," deliberately hiding the fact that some of the most successful OA journals are run by volunteers benefiting by the huge economies of Web-based publishing, and need no author fees. It may be the case that translating a traditional high-overhead journal to OA is economically impractical, but most of that overhead is useless anyway, since the scientists who to the real work — authors, reviewers, editors — are volunteers anyway.

There's a lot of pressure, from many sources, on this point. Publishers and scientific societies are feeling the heat, and making some concessions. For example, the rest of you will be able to read Fitch and Hauser's paper on line for free as of 1/16/2005, one year after its original publication. This sort of open-access-after-a-delay has become common, and it's certainly a step forward. But the guild structure imposed by high journal subscription prices no longer has any real economic justification, and its days are apparently numbered. You might want to check your stock portfolio for companies whose revenues now derive substantially from publishing scientific and scholarly journals.

I'm by no means any sort of information-wants-to-be-free absolutist. I recognize that there are real costs associated with creating, maintaining, archiving and indexing journals, and that these costs need to be covered . But most of the real costs have always been met by subsidies from all of the participants except the publishers and the scientific societies -- the companies, government agencies and private institutions that fund the research, and the authors, reviewers and editors who volunteer their time.

In the olden days, there were significant costs associated with typesetting, printing and mailing, and so the publishers had a real role to play. But in field after field, paper journals are becoming like academic caps and gowns, a purely ceremonial relict of an obsolete culture. The difference is that the cap-and-gown providers were never given the role of gatekeepers over matriculation and graduation, able to charge tens of billions of dollars a year for an increasingly inessential role. The learned societies continue to provide real services, especially with respect to the organization of annual meetings. But as Fernando suggests, some of them have come to support very significant bureaucracies, and the cost-effectiveness of their contributions to the advancement of science deserve some scrutiny, especially if part of the cost is exclusion of the public from access to the science.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 31, 2004 12:13 PM