The Research Works Act and the breakdown of mutual incomprehension
When the history of the Research Works Act, and the reaction against it, is written that history will point at the factors that allowed smart people with significant marketing experience to walk with their eyes wide open into the teeth of a storm that thousands of people would have predicted with complete confidence. That story will detail two utterly incompatible world views of scholarly communication. The interesting thing is that with the benefit of hindsight both will be totally incomprehensible to the observer from five or ten years in the future. It seems worthwhile therefore to try and detail those world views as I understand them.
The scholarly publisher
The publisher world view places them as the owner and guardian of scholarly communications. While publishers recognise that researchers provide the majority of the intellectual property in scholarly communication, their view is that researchers willingly and knowingly gift that property to the publishers in exchange for a set of services that they appreciate and value. In this view everyone is happy as a trade is carried out in which everyone gets what they want. The publisher is free to invest in the service they provide and has the necessary rights to look after and curate the content. The authors are happy because they can obtain the services they require without having to pay cash up front.
Crucial to this world view is a belief that research communication, the process of writing and publishing papers, is separate to the research itself. This is important because otherwise it would be clear that, at least in an ethical sense, that the writing of papers would be work for hire for the funders – and part and parcel of the contract of research. For the publishers the fact that no funding contract specifies that “papers must be published” is the primary evidence of this.
The researcher’s perspective is entirely different. Researchers view their outputs as their own property, both the ideas, the physical outputs, and the communications. Within institutions you see this in the uneasy relationship between researchers and research translation and IP exploitation offices. Institutions try to avoid inflaming this issue by ensuring that economic returns on IP go largely to the researcher, at least until there is real money involved. But at that stage the issue is usually fudged as extra investment is required which dilutes ownership. But scratch a researcher who has gone down the exploitation path and then pushed gently aside and you’ll get a feel for the sense of personal ownership involved.
Researchers have a love-hate relationship with papers. Some people enjoy writing them, although I suspect this is rare. I’ve never met any researcher who did anything but hate the process of shepherding a paper through the review process. The service, as provided by the publisher, is viewed with deep suspicion. The resentment that is often expressed by researchers for professional editors is primarily a result of a loss of control over the process for the researcher and a sense of powerlessness at the hands of people they don’t trust. The truth is that researchers actually feel exactly the same resentment for academic editors and reviewers. They just don’t often admit it in public.
So from a researcher’s perspective, they have spent an inordinate amount of effort on a great paper. This is their work, their property. They are now obliged to hand over control of this to people they don’t trust to run a process they are unconvinced by. Somewhere along the line they sign something. Mostly they’re not too sure what that means, but they don’t give it much thought, let alone read it. But the idea that they are making a gift of that property to the publisher is absolute anathema to most researchers.
To be honest researchers don’t care that much about a paper once its out. It caused enough pain and they don’t ever want to see it again. This may change over time if people start to cite it and refer to it in supportive terms but most people won’t really look at a paper again. It’s a line on a CV, a notch on the bedpost. What they do notice is the cost, or lack of access, to other people’s papers. Library budgets are shrinking, subscriptions are being chopped, personal subscriptions don’t seem to be affordable any more.
The first response to this when researchers meet is “why can’t we afford access to our work?” The second is, given the general lack of respect for the work that publishers do, is to start down the process of claiming that they could do it better. Much of the rhetoric around eLife as a journal “led by scientists” is built around this view. And a lot of it is pure arrogance. Researchers neither understand, nor appreciate for the most part, the work of copyediting and curation, layout and presentation. While there are tools today that can do many of these things more cheaply there are very few researchers who could use them effectively.
So the environment that set the scene for the Research Works Act revolt was a combination of simmering resentment amongst researchers for the cost of accessing the literature, combined with a lack of understanding of what it is publishers actually do. The spark that set it off was the publisher rhetoric about ownership of the work. This was always going to happen one day. The mutually incompatible world views could co-exist while there was still enough money to go around. While librarians felt trapped between researchers who demanded access to everything and publishers offering deals that just about meant they could scrape by things could continue.
Fundamentally once publishers started publicly using the term “appropriation of our property” the spark had flown. From the publisher perspective this makes perfect sense. The NIH mandate is a unilateral appropriation of their property. From the researcher perspective it is a system that essentially adds a bit of pressure to do something that they know is right, promote access, without causing them too much additional pain. Researchers feel they ought to be doing something to improve acccess to research output but for the most part they’re not too sure what, because they sure as hell aren’t in a position to change the journals they publish in. That would be (perceived to be) career suicide.
The elephant in the room
But it is of course the funder perspective that we haven’t yet discussed and looking forward, in my view it is the action of funders that will render both the publisher and researcher perspective incomprehensible in ten years time. The NIH view, similar to that of the Wellcome Trust, and indeed every funder I have spoken to, is that research communication is an intrinsic part of the research they fund. Funders take a close interest in the outputs that their research generates. One might say a proprietorial interest because again, there is a strong sense of ownership. The NIH Mandate language expresses this through the grant contract. Researchers are required to grant to the NIH a license to hold a copy of their research work.
In my view it is through research communication that research has outcomes and impact. From the perspective of a funder their main interest is that the research they fund generates those outcomes and impacts. For a mission driven funder the current situation signals one thing and it signals it very strongly. Neither publishers, nor researchers can be trusted to do this properly. What funders will do is move to stronger mandates, more along the Wellcome Trust lines than the NIH lines, and that this will expand. At the end of the day, the funders hold all the cards. Publishers never really did have a business model, they had a public subsidy. The holders of those subsidies can only really draw one conclusion from current events. That they are going to have to be much more active in where they spend it to successfully perform their mission.
The smart funders will work with the pre-existing prejudice of researchers, probably granting copyright and IP rights to the researchers, but placing tighter constraints on the terms of forward licensing. That funders don’t really need the publishers has been made clear by HHMI, Wellcome Trust, and the MPI. Publishing costs are a small proportion of their total expenditure. If necessary they have the resources and will to take that in house. The NIH has taken a similar route though technically implemented in a different way. Other funders will allow these experiments to run, but ultimately they will adopt the approaches that appear to work.
Bottom line: Within ten years all major funders will mandate CC-BY Open Access on publication arising from work they fund immediately on publication. Several major publishers will not survive the transition. A few will and a whole set of new players will spring up to fill the spaces. The next ten years look to be very interesting.
- An Open Letter to David Willetts: A bold step towards opening British research (cameronneylon.net)
- The power of blogs, or #OccupyScholComm [Confessions of a Science Librarian] (scienceblogs.com)
- How much does it cost to get a scientific paper? [Discovering Biology in a Digital World] (scienceblogs.com)
- Elsevier = evil (freethoughtblogs.com)
- Mike Taylor: Academic publishers have become the enemies of science (junkscience.com)
- The Research Works Act: Is It Time For a Rally To Restore Sanity? (scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org)
- The cost of knowledge (terrytao.wordpress.com)
- Will Academics’ Boycott Of Elsevier Be The Tipping Point For Open Access – Or Another Embarrassing Flop? (mt-soft.com.ar)
- Down With the Research Works Act (pipeline.corante.com)
- Branding academic publishers ‘enemies of science’ is offensive and wrong (guardian.co.uk)
- Mysteries of the Elsevier Boycott (scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org)