I am leaving later today to fly to Bahrain, where I will be part of an international panel discussing open access at the annual meeting of the Special Libraries Association, Arab Gulf Chapter. Libraries in the region, as I understand it, have not yet taken significant steps toward open access to scholarship, but they are anxious to learn. I think the spread of interest in the whys and hows of open access all over the world indicates how great the momentum behind this movement is. Even Elsevier called open access the wave of the future recently, even as they continue to try to stem that tide.
Public access, of course, is a subset of open access, referring specifically to access provided for the public to the results of research that is supported by significant government investments. The arguments for public access are so obvious that it may be the easiest form of open access to defend and to spread. Taxpayers deserve access to the research products they have paid for; even the sponsors of the ill-fated Research Works Act acknowledged this as they stepped away from the foolish proposal. And public access increases the accountability of governments for how they spend the money that is loaned to them by their citizens. Many other countries are way ahead of the US in providing this accountability.
All of this makes the recent statement by the Association of American Publishers opposing open access mandates from government funders seem all the more ill-advised. In some ways the language of the statement seems more carefully crafted and restrained, but close examination still proves that the arguments put forward are fundamentally misleading.
My favorite howler is this: “FRPAA [the current legislation that would expand public access mandates in the US] is little more than an attempt at intellectual eminent domain, but without fair compensation to authors and publishers,” said Tom Allen, President and CEO, AAP.” Really? It is hard to believe that the CEO said this , since it seems like a statement calculated to show how weak the publishers’ position really is.
FRPAA, of course, is nothing like eminent domain, for the simple reason that the government has invested in the creation of the intellectual property at issue in the first place. Indeed, what the publishers want is a continuation of the “land grab” from which they have long benefited; they want property that is really a public good — created with public funds on many levels — turned over to them and reserved for private gain. And do they really want to raise the issue of fair compensation for authors? Scholarly authors are often paid with public funds and have their research supported with public funds. Yet publishers take that work without any compensation to the authors. Only when they pay for the products they subsequently sell can publishers ask about fairness.
Later in the statement, the AAP provides a list of the ways in which they invest in the products of scholarship — “validation, digital enhancement, production, interoperability and distribution.” It is true that this is a list of services that publishers provide, more or less well. Interoperability, for example, is better served by open access than traditional publication. But let’s admit that these are services that publishers provide. None of them however, create a proprietary interest in the works in question, and they are all services that authors should be free to evaluate. If authors (who are the sole owners of copyright until they decide otherwise) believe that these services are not worth the cost of surrendering their rights, or that they can obtain them better through other forms of publishing, they should be free to do so. The overwhelming support for public access by the research community suggests that they do believe that.
Finally, the AAP statement complains about the six month embargo that would be the maximum allowed under FRPAA. I have heard several versions of this complaint, and suggestions that for some disciplines the embargo window should be much longer, even as much as five years. To those concerns, I would respond that it is important not to confuse the period of time during which a work is useful in a particular discipline with the period of time during which it is profitable. In biomedical sciences, research dates quickly. But in other fields, and especially in the humanities, the usefulness of an article can be quite long-lived. But these embargo windows are not intended to define the term of usability; they are merely there to protect publishers’ ability to profit from the article. And the window of profitability is certainly much shorter in these fields than the window of usability; subscription sales are exhausted within a very short time after publication, even if scholars continue to consult a particular articles for many years.
I am reasonably certain that the six month embargo included in FRPAA as introduced will be vigorously negotiated, and perhaps variable windows will be introduced. That’s fine, but I hope the negotiations will be based on real data and not unfounded and incredible assertions. Publishers need to show us the curve that illustrates their profits. Do they really continue to make significant revenue after six months? After one year? Everything I have seen suggests that six months is very reasonable, when viewed as a window for profitability. If I am wrong, publishers need to show me that data. Since I and my colleagues are the ones who create their products, they owe us that much, at least.