OSTP comments and the issue of compensation

I wanted to post this earlier, but intervening events got the better of me.  As most readers will know, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently collected a wide range of very useful and specific comments in response to a request for information about public access policies for federally-funded research.  I wanted to point readers to two sets of comments, those that I wrote on behalf of the Duke University Office of Scholarly Communications, which are available here, and the superb comments from Harvard Provost Steven Hyman, which are linked from Harvard’s Office of Scholarly Communications blog, the Occasional Pamphlet.

One issue that arises in some of the OSTP comments is “compensation” for publishers when the final published version of articles based on federally-funded research is made publicly accessible.  I was recently part of a conversation on public access in which several academic publishers from scholarly societies raised this term.  I bit my tongue at the time to keep from yelling because I thought it was an idiosyncratic notion with no legs.  But when I looked at the full set of OSTP comments, I notice that compensation is brought up by numerous publishers.  See, for example, the comments from the Association of American Publishers, from Elsevier, and from STM: the Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers.   This last set of comments is very explicit in suggesting that publishers deserve financial compensation (not just “compensation” in the form of embargos) for the value they add to scholarly articles through managing peer-review and copy editing (see page 10).

I continue to be amazed that scholarly publishers are willing to make this demand in this language, but all I can say is that it is a conversation I am anxious to have.  I hope we can discuss the failures of compensation that occur throughout the scholarly publication system.  Publishers, of course, are usually the only ones who actually profit financially from scholarly journal articles.   Taxpayers often underwrite the work upon which those articles are based, and universities also supply resources and salaries to the authors.  Where is compensation for those entities, which rightfully should be paid out of subscription income?  Instead, of course, it is the universities that pay to get back the products of their own research, through their library budgets.  Peer-review is, of course, managed by publishers, but the actual intellectual work is again done by university faculty members, who donate their time and labor to improve scholarship.  If we are going to talk about compensation, let’s discuss how they should be compensated from the profits publishers make from their work.  And finally, how should scholars be compensated for transferring their copyrights to publishers?  There are, after all, substantial lost opportunity costs whenever an author surrenders control over their work.  These transfers have almost always been gratuitous in the past, but if we are going to talk about compensation, perhaps that can change.

In short, I hope we can have a conversation about compensation, because such a conversation can only reveal how exploitative and unsustainable the current model is.  If we discuss the full range of compensation issues, and not only narrow questions about copy editing, perhaps we can make progress towards a fair system of scholarly communications.

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