Thanks to the invaluable “anthropologi.info”:http://www.antropologi.info for pointing out that “the American Anthropological Association opposes open access scholarship”:http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/anthropology.php?title=american_anthropological_association_opp&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1. As Lorenz points out in the link above, the AAA has issued a “press release”:http://www.aaanet.org/press/WhatNew060806.htm saying that it is has signed on to “letter by the Assocation of American Publishers”:http://www.aaanet.org/pdf/collinsltr.doc which opposes the “Federal Research Public Access Act”:http://www.arl.org/sparc/resources/frpaa.html. Our sister (brother?) organizations the American Sociological Association, the American Political Science Association, the Society for American Archaeology, and others have not signed this letter. The AAA’s main reason for doing so is, according to them, “the potential impact the proposed legislation may have on the AnthroSource business model and revenue generation.” The sad — indeed, pathetic — thing about this decision is that I am actually on the AnthroSource Steering Committee and didn’t hear anything about this decision. On another occasion — when I am allowed to speak more publicly about the internal workings of the AAA — I’ll discus what I think is wrong with how this decision was made. Here I’d just like to discuss how wrong I think it is.
The Federal Research Publication Access Act requires that researchers submit manuscripts of published articles to open access repositories run by the government. So, for instance, if you got an NSF grant to do your fieldwork and published an article in American Ethnologist about it, you would put a copy of the manuscript of the article in the NSF repository where everybody could read it. This is a good thing for authors, because it has been shown time and time again that when they publish in open access forums their work is more widely known. And it is good for researchers-cum-tax payers because they don’t have to pay twice for a piece of research.
You see, currently the way that much scholarly publishing in the US works is this: tax payer dollars go to the government, which gives them to researchers as research grants. The researchers do research and submit the articles to journals. Other researchers then peer-review the articles submitted to these journals for free as part of their service to the academy. This adds value to the articles because the peer reviewers provide suggestions for revision which strengthen the article. They also add value to the journal by ensuring that it produces reliable research. The journals then charge money for this product, and taxpayers then buy it. The result: tax payers pay twice for access to research, and journals make a profit selling a product subsidized by the unpaid work of peer reviewers and government funded research. How much value these journals add to a product is an important question. Some would say that without publishers there would be no journals at all and that they provide the technical infrastructure to create publications — they provide a public good and the market rewards them for it. Others would say they are parasites who exploit the work of others for profits. I fall somewhere in the middle of these two views, personally. But the key question here is exactly how much value publishers add to journals.
The American Anthropological Association doesn’t like this bill because — according to the AAP letter it signed onto — it believes it would “adversely impact the existing peer review system that ensures the high quality of scientific research in the United States. In addition, it would impose costly new mandates on federal agencies.” Eprints.org has its own “evaluation”:http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/93-How-to-Counter-All-Opposition-to-the-FRPAA-Self-Archiving-Mandate.html of this claim, as does “Peter Suber”:http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2006_05_07_fosblogarchive.html#114726726169346460. However let me add my voice to these other writers and take a look at these claims…
Let’s take the first claim: the AAA basically believes that the peer-review system will collapse if federal repositories are created because no one will subscribe to journals and as a result journals will not be able to maintain “staff, capital, and operational costs to manage the peer review system.” This is wrong for many reasons. First, the Federal Research Publication Access Act has a six month moving wall for content so new articles will not be immediately available. Second, the articles in the public repositories will be unpaginated manuscripts, not final paginated offprints of articles, and so they will be less citeable. Third, the repository will not take a paper form, so it will not compete with demands for a journal’s paper product. In other words, the federal repositories will be hobbled so that they will not be able to compete with journals.
Fourth, open access repositories do not necessarily result in the extinction of journals. In physics, for example, the existence of arxiv.org has not destroyed the publication of physics journals. Fifth, this argument assumes that journals are actually funded through subscriptions, but that is not true. Many scholarly associations pay for their publication program using membership dues. In fact according to John Willinsky’s book The Access Principle (p. 219) in 2000 the AAA lost over US$100,000 on publications. I double dog dare any member of the AAA or AAA staff to guest blog on Savage Minds and explain what has changed and how a feasible business model based on subscriptions would/will/has worked for the AAA.
In other words, in order for publishers to argue that it will become unprofitable for them to run a journal because of competition from open access repositories, they must argue that they provide very little value to a journal as a product. If it is really the case that these federal repositories will compete them out of existence then finding another forum for coordinating peer review cannot — by their own admission — be that costly. I think its much more likely that publishers of for-profit journals (which the AAA apparently considers itself to be) could innovate and provide increased benefits to their subscribers that open access repositories provide, but would rather not do so simply because efficient markets are never fun for sellers, and this change makes put a premium on the services that publishers actually add to a journal.
As for the second argument that federal agencies will have to waste tax payer dollars constructing costly and inefficient alternatives to free-market delivery of services provided by for-profit publishing. According to “Sparc”:http://www.arl.org/sparc/resources/frpaa.html the NIH estimates that it will cost .01% of its budget to set up a repository. True, that’s 3.5 million dollars! But still, this is hardly an enormous amount of that institutions over all spending. And given the tendency towards consolidation of the publication industry under a few major publishers, we can no longer assume that the ‘free market’ is more efficient than government interventions.
Is the Federal Research Publication Access Act a challenge to scholarly publishing? Of course! But simply because a business model faces a strategic challenge does not mean that the challenge shouldn’t be faced. It might even be that life after the challenge is better than life before. I am not surprised to see Elsevier, Sage, and other publishers attempt to stop this law. I am, however, surprised and saddened to see the AAA get on the bandwagon. Perhaps the AAA would like to see changes in the law. Perhaps it is lukewarm on these proposals. But actively lobbying against an open access bill is, in my opinion, totally inexcusable.