September 04, 2006

Who knew?

The real added value in the multi-billion-dollar scientific publishing industry is -- wait for it -- copy editing! Well, that and pagination.

Back in the July 13 issue of Nature, Emma Maris buried the lead in her article on the latest skirmish in the Open Access wars ("PS I want all the rights", Nature 442, 118-119 7/13/2006). Maris reminds us that "[f]unding agencies are increasingly adopting policies to make the results of the research they fund free for all", and features the news that

Ann Wolpert, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has launched an initiative that she says will clearly assign rights to the author in a way that would satisfy funders. Wolpert has drawn up a document that researchers can add on to the rights agreement the publisher gives them to sign.

Wolpert's amendment has been endorsed by MIT's Faculty Policy Committee, its Vice President for Research, and other officials. You won't be surprised that Nature Publishing Group thinks this is a bad idea.

"This isn't a balance of rights. This is giving MIT all the relevant rights," says David Hoole, head of brand marketing at Nature Publishing Group.

However, the scientific and scholarly publishers are finding it increasingly difficult to justify their traditional insistence on copyright assignment. I'm used to reading arguments about the value that they add by typesetting, printing and distribution; by providing administrative support for organizing the peer review process; by guaranteeing long-term availability; and so on. But these arguments have apparently been abandoned, in the face of new publishing technology, new distribution methods, and new archiving techniques, all of which make it possible in principle for the research literature to function without the traditional heavyweight -- and high-cost -- infrastructure. Instead, we now have this:

Publishers point out that most journals already allow authors to post the accepted version of their paper online, as required by the NIH and the Wellcome Trust. Such versions have been peer reviewed, but aren't copy-edited, formatted or paginated. But giving authors rights to the final versions, they say, could make it impossible for journals to earn a living.

Jerry Cowhig, managing director of the publishing arm of the Institute of Physics, says that the institute provides articles free online for 30 days after publication, and that he is happy for authors to post the accepted versions of their papers. But he is not in favour of making the final, edited version of a paper freely available everywhere. "That would be a real threat to the continuation of established journals, and the eventual outcome would be to damage scholarship," he says.

Sally Morris, chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, agrees. "The final version is where publishers add value," she says. [emphasis added]

So the publishers' added value comes when the submitted paper, after peer review and author revisions, is copy-edited and paginated?

I have the highest personal regard for copy editors. But I suspect that even to our esteemed copy-editing colleagues at headsup: the blog and A Capital Idea will be surprised to learn that their profession is held in such high regard by publishers. And I wonder, how much of the several billion dollars a year in subscription and advertising charges for these journals winds up in the pockets of copy editors?

[Here's Wolpert's "Amendment to Publication Agreement". You can read more discussion of it (from an open-access perspective) in Hemai Parthasarathy, "Instituting Change", PLoS Biology, 4(6) June 2006.

The Nature article quotes Wolpert:

I look at it as responding to a request by faculty members to simplify their lives. They say 'it is crazy that we are supposed to read and understand these publishers' agreements. Give me something that I can just staple to any agreement, so I can comply with NIH or Wellcome Trust policy'.

A great idea.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 4, 2006 06:05 AM