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Update on publishers and SOPA: Time for scholarly publishers to disavow the AAP

5 January 2012 12 Comments
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In my last post on scholarly publishers that support the US Congress SOPA bill I ended up making a series of edits. It was pointed out to me that the Macmillan listed as a supporter is not the Macmillan that is the parent group of Nature Publishing Group but a separate U.S. subsidiary of the same ultimate holding company, Holtzbrinck. As I dug further it became clear that while only a small number of scholarly publishers were explicitly and publicly supporting SOPA, many of them are members of the Association of American Publishers, which is listed publicly as a supporter.

This is a little different to directly supporting the act. The AAP is a membership organisation that represents its members (including Nature Publishing Group, Oxford University Press, Wiley Blackwell and a number of other familiar names, see the full list at the bottom) to – amongst others – the U.S. government. Not all of its positions would necessarily be held by all its members. However, neither have any of those members come out and publicly stated that they disagree with the AAP position. In another domain Kaspersky software quit the Business Software Alliance over the BSA’s support of SOPA, even after the BSA withdrew its support.

I was willing to give AAP members some benefit of the doubt, hoping that some of them might come out publicly against SOPA. But if that was the hope then the AAP have just stepped over the line. In a spectacularly disingenuous press release the AAP claims significant credit for a new act just submitted to the U.S. Congress. This, in a repeat of some previous efforts, would block any efforts on the part of U.S. federal agencies to enact open access policies, even to the extent of blocking them from continuing to run the spectacularly successful PubMedCentral. That this comes days before the deadline for a request for information on the development of appropriate and balanced policies that would support access to the published results of U.S. taxpayer-funded research is a calculated political act, an abrogation of any principled stance, and clear signal of a lack of any interest in a productive discussion on how to move scholarly communications forward into a networked future.

I was willing to give AAP members some space. Not any more. The time has come to decide whether you want to be part of the future of research communication or whether you want to legislate to try and stop that future happening. You can be part of that future or you can be washed into the past. You can look forward or you can be part of a political movement working to rip off the taxpayers and charitable donors of the world. Remember that the profits alone of Elsevier and Springer (though I should be cutting Springer a little slack as they’re not on the AAP list – the one on the list is a different Springer) could fund the publication of every paper in the world in PLoS ONE. Remember that the cost of putting a SAGE article on reserve for a decent sized class or of putting a Taylor and Francis monograph on reserve for a more modest sized one at one university is more than it would cost to publish them in most BioMedCentral journals and make them available to all.

Ultimately this legislation is irrelevant – the artificial level of current costs of publication and the myriad of additional charges that publishers make for this, that, and the other (Colour charges? Seriously?) will ultimately be destroyed. The current inefficiencies and inflated markups cannot be sustained. The best legislation can do is protect them for a little longer, at the cost of damaging the competitiveness of the U.S. as a major player in global research. With PLoS ONE rapidly becoming a significant proportion of the world’s literature on its own and Nature and Science soon to be facing serious competition at the top end from an OA journal backed by three of the most prestigious funders in the world, we are moving rapidly towards a world where publishing in a subscription journal will be foolhardy at best and suicidal for researchers in many fields. This act is ultimately a pathetic rearguard action and a sign of abject failure.

But for me it is also a sign that the rhetoric of being supportive of a gradual managed change to our existing systems, a plausible argument for such organisations to make, is dead for those signed up to the AAP. Publishers have a choice – lobby and legislate to preserve the inefficient, costly, and largely ineffective status quo – or play a positive part in developing the future.

I don’t expect much; to be honest I expect deafening silence as most publishers continue to hope that most researchers will be too buried in their work to notice what is going on around them. But I will continue to hope that some members of that list, the organisations that really believe that their core mission is to support the most effective research communication – not that those are just a bunch of pretty words that get pulled out from time to time – will disavow the AAP position and commit to a positive and open discussion about how we can take the best from the current system and make it work with the best we can with the technology available. A positive discussion about managed change that enables us to get where we want to go and helps to make sure that we reap the benefits when we get there.

This bill is self-defeating as legislation but as a political act it may be effective in the short term. It could hold back the tide for a while. But publishers that support it will ultimately get wiped out as the world moves on and they spend so time pushing back the tide that they miss the opportunity to catch up. Publishers who move against the bill have a role to play in the future and are the ones with enough insight to see the way the world is moving. And those publishers who sit on the sidelines? They don’t have the institutional capability to take the strategic decisions required to survive. Choose.

Update: An interesting parallel post from John Dupuis and a trenchant expose (we expect nothing less) from Michael Eisen. Jon Eisen calls for people at the institutions and organisations with links to AAP to get on the phone and ask for them to resign from AAP. Lots of links appearing at this Google+ post from Peter Suber.

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The List of AAP Members from http://www.publishers.org/members/psp/

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  • Comment from Stevan Harnard – which didn’t seem to want to go through the system:


    What the research community needs, urgently, is free online access (Open Access, OA) to its own peer-reviewed research output. Researchers can provide that in two ways: by publishing their articles in OA journals (Gold OA) or by continuing to publish in non-OA journals and self-archiving their final peer-reviewed drafts in their own OA Institutional Repositories (Green OA). OA self-archiving, once it is mandated by research institutions and funders, can reliably generate 100% Green OA. Gold OA requires journals to convert to OA publishing (which is not in the hands of the research community) and it also requires the funds to cover the Gold OA publication costs. With 100% Green OA, the research community’s access and impact problems are already solved. If and when 100% Green OA should cause significant cancellation pressure (no one knows whether or when that will happen, because OA Green grows anarchically, article by article, not journal by journal) then the cancellation pressure will cause cost-cutting, downsizing and eventually a leveraged transition to OA (Gold) publishing on the part of journals. As subscription revenues shrink, institutional windfall savings from cancellations grow. If and when journal subscriptions become unsustainable, per-article publishing costs will be low enough, and institutional savings will be high enough to cover them, because PUBLISHING WILL HAVE DOWNSIZE TO JUST PEER-REVIEW SERVICE PROVISION ALONE, offloading text-generation onto authors and access-provision and archiving onto the global network of OA Institutional Repositories. Green OA will have leveraged a transition to Gold OA.

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age, pp. 99-105, L’Harmattan. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/15753/

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  • Clyde Davies

    As an ex-research scientist now working on improving scholarly collaboration,  I have no problems at all with several business models coexisting in research publishing.  If, say a private consultancy conducts its own research at its own expense then it should be free to sell it as it sees fit.  But by the same token, publically funded research conducted for the public good should be publically available, period.

    As you pointed out at this week’s meeting in Cambridge, there is a real chance for the current business models to evolve for the benefit of both publishers and researchers.  The transition to a serviced-based publishing model where publishers can add value in ways other than distribution – for instance, by semantically marking up existing texts – is a real opportunity for growth and diversification but can only really come about through active participation by all involved. 

    All this act will do is polarise opinion.  Researchers will actively oppose it, the AAP will embrace it and the two camps will end up at loggerheads and nothing will change.  It is a squalid piece of legislation funded by producer interests that is entirely contrary to the public interest in general, not just that of the scientific community.  And it simply goes to demonstrate that the US has the best political system that money can buy.

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