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It’s funny…

21 February 2014 One Comment

…one of the motivations I had to get writing again was a request from someone at a traditional publisher to write more because it “was so useful to have a moderate voice to point to”. Seems I didn’t do so well at that with that first post back.

When you get a criticism about tone it is easy to get defensive. It’s particularly easy when there has been a history of condescension, personal attacks and attacks on the fundamental logic of what you’re doing from “the other side”. But of course many times, perhaps mostly, those who are concerned about tone and civility are not the same ones who made those attacks – there often is no “other side” just a gradation of views. Its also easy to feel that comments about tone or “reasonableness” are a strategy to discredit an argument by attacking the person. Again, this is a strategy that has been used against OA advocates, including myself but that doesn’t mean that its necessarily the motivation behind any specific expression of concern. Equally it can be seductive to view criticism of tone as success, that the “opposition” can’t deal with the argument itself. That way however lies the madness of far too many internet pundits and sterile argumentative discussion forums focussed on scoring points. I use many strategies for persuasion, including ridicule, but I try not to attack people, only ideas. I wouldn’t make any claim to be perfect at that – and I lose my temper as much as the next person –  but I try to own my mis-steps.

But, and its a big but, the sense I get is that what has upset people is a sense that the Access to Research program is a positive, if small step, and that it is unreasonable for myself and others to criticise it as being “too small”. I want to be clear about this. My view is not that it’s too small, but that it is a step in entirely the wrong direction. The reason for this is that it couples a very small increase in access to a contractual decrease in rights. This is part of a broader strategy of the traditional publishing industry to couple any increase in access to placing more contractual obligations on users. Licenses for Europe in which agreements to allow text mining would be coupled to new licensing conditions, CHORUS, where access to read is to be controlled through publishers, and Access to Research are all about building systems that enable contractual control over the use of content, rather than actively seeking to create a space where content can be freely re-used. In the case of Access to Research most people would be better getting a membership at their local university library – where the restrictions on their use would be much less. A much more positive (and potentially easier and cheaper) approach would have been to strike terms from library contracts that make it difficult for them to offer memberships to community members outside their institutions or a program to support those libraries in creating membership schemes. These efforts to retain control and the fear of losing control are also corrosive to the long term future value of traditional publishers but that’s a topic for another post.

So I’m not going to applaud Access to Research, but I would like to think that I do applaud positive steps, even small ones, regardless of who makes them. I do have to accept a criticism that has been made to me that I’m not as good at this as I should be. There are positive steps, the traditional publisher support of ORCID has been exemplary, the efforts by Springer and Wiley to keep licensing offerings simple and interesting experiments in executable papers by Elsevier and data publication from NPG are all valuable – even where I disagree with the details of the strategy. So here and now I will make a commitment to calling out positive steps in what I see is the right direction, even if small. I’m also more than happy to talk to anyone, in complete confidence, about what I see as positive and practical steps they might take, and to discuss how they can find easy wins that work within the limitations they face. I’ve done this in the past with many organisations and I think people have found those discussions useful.

Discussion is always more useful than shouting matches. And sometimes that discussion will be robust, and sometimes people will get angry. It’s always worth trying to understand why someone has a strong response. Of course a strong response will always be better received if it focuses on issues. And that goes regardless of which side of any particular fence we might be standing on.