Open access journals. Part 1.

“Information wants to be free.“ Stewart Brand

Finally! We’ve seen the back of 2019; the year 2020 beckons, with all its promise and potential for a fresh start. You and I enter the year as new creations. But if we’re to realize versus squander this annual opportunity for refreshment and renewal – indeed for personal transformation – it’s time to cobble together a set of New Year’s resolutions.

Surveys suggest most of us aim first at improving our physical and financial health (better diet, more exercise, lose weight; save more, spend less). But you have to read a ways down any top-ten list before you come to resolutions along the lines of learn something new.

Hmm, that seems important too. But learn what? It depends. People generally may view learning something new as acquiring a new skill or a hobby.  A vignette: Jerry Mahlmann was one of the leading NWP researchers in his day. He was also an avid basketball player. But one day, when we were both in our fifties, I asked him about the basketball, and he said, “Oh, I’m playing volleyball now.” When I asked why, he said with a smile, “I’m getting better at volleyball.”

But for anyone in knowledge work, building our capacity to contribute at the job takes priority. Case in point. I’m employed by a scientific/professional society, one celebrating its centennial, and seeking to be as relevant to the coming century as it was to the last. As a result, I’m belatedly trying to come up to speed on the issue of open-access journals.  

(Really, Bill? The topic is incredibly arcane, esoteric. It’s complicated – stupefyingly, head-spinningly so. And it’s dry – material on the subject can seem a bit dull, calling to mind a vast, parched landscape, one rapidly becoming still more desertified. Why, Bill?)

Truth be told? If you’re working in the policy corner of the AMS, it’s been tempting to stick your head in the sand and ignore this issue in favor of climate-change policy and carbon fees, or on building resilience to hazards, or renewable energy, or public-private partnerships domestically and internationally, or any of a dozen other topics. Tempting to leave this open-access issue to AMS publications staff and volunteer leadership and the AMS Executive Director.

But recently, the U.S. government has signaled that it is contemplating further steps toward completely open access. The prospect is generating greater science-society concern (see also here).

And the issue matters:

  • Journals actually add great value to science; they’re not just an incremental final add-on. That value is achievable only at a cost, a cost that needs to be repaid by someone. In the past, those costs have been recovered through a mix of subscription fees and author charges (page charges, charges for color, etc.) that are now under scrutiny. This business model matters existentially not just to my employer but also to other science societies generally.
  • The cost-savings implied by electronic publishing and advances in information technology notwithstanding, those costs look set to rise significantly in future years.
  • The trends responsible for all this are larger than science, outside of science.
  • But the threat to journals (and hence to science itself) feeds back – poses risks for our larger society.

This and a few succeeding posts (admittedly more focused on why we might care than what we should do) attempt to unpack these points. (Full disclosure; the posts are not self-contained; they merely provide links to a few points-of-entry for interested readers wanting to make the deeper dive.)

Wikipedia provides a summary that can get us started. The (fairly extensive) entry begins this way:

Open access (OA) is a mechanism by which research outputs are distributed online, free of cost or other access barriers. With open access strictly defined (according to the 2001 definition), or libre open access, barriers to copying or reuse are also reduced or removed by applying an open license for copyright.

Sounds simple enough. And on the surface, compelling. In particular, scientific research is funded by governments, and thus, ultimately by taxpayers. And isn’t information technology rapidly bringing down the costs of dissemination? In the year 2020, why shouldn’t everyone get free, immediate access to the research results? Why should any taxpayer have to pay twice? Why should they have to wait?

Strikingly, this particular Wikipedia open-access entry, though structured and extensive, begins with a caveat, repeated here verbatim:

This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards. The specific problem is: Need to reduce repetition across sections and make language more concise and avoid advocacy in favor of open access [emphasis added]. Also, lots of text on issues that are not specific to OA needs to be removed (inclusiveness of databases, criticism of IF) Please help improve this article if you can. (May 2018)

This is the kind of caveat usually reserved for stubs. In other words, Wikipedia, an institution synonymous with, indeed iconic for, open-access, suggests a need for much further reflection and dialog – and more balance – regarding the pros and cons of open access. Which brings us to:

Information wants to be free.

This Stewart Brand aphorism has been widely bandied about, but it’s no mere quote. It embodies the core spirit and vitality of the information age. That said, it captures merely one side of his fuller thinking. We find, from the Wikipedia entry devoted to his quote:

…attributed to Stewart Brand, who, in the late 1960s, founded the Whole Earth Catalog and argued that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing. The earliest recorded occurrence of the expression was at the first Hackers Conference in 1984. Brand told Steve Wozniak:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

(Wow. Information wants to be free? Only half the story, perhaps even less.) It turns out that information is not only valuable, it’s fragile. Information faces several risks: being diluted to the point of worthlessness, being inaccessible; or worse, being distorted, misrepresented.

There’s much more to this, but it’ll have to await future LOTRW posts.

In the meantime, a closing thought: Some 10% of U.S. beef cattle are raised grazing on federal lands. Why shouldn’t that beef should be free to the American taxpayer?

My guess is any reader would be instantly dismissive of this notion, and appropriately so. There are costs to protecting a herd, to transporting and butchering the beef, the preserving and testing it to ensure safe consumption, to packaging it for the consumer. But in many respects, science journals play a similar part in making science consumable/accessible to public that needs it. The analogy isn’t perfect, but neither is it misdirected. Think about it.

And voluntary contributions (a policy solution often suggested to provide the incremental funding journal publications need) are limited, intermittent, and fickle; they’re mismatched to the continuity and sustainability a robust journal infrastructure requires.

Case in point? The plaintive Wikipedia pop-up plea for donations that has intruded on my every use of the site this past month (probably dozens of times a day).

In years past, I’ve ignored the appeal. This year, I made my first donation. Ever.  

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