Turning Out the Lights | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

While societies defend their traditional publishing role, libraries are losing access to the scholarly record

I find it jarring when scholarly societies fight efforts to require that federally funded research results be open access, claiming that the revenue stream derived from their publication programs must be protected.

Steven Breckler, the Executive Director for Science at the American Psychological Association (APA), testified to that effect before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in late July, arguing that "rushing" into a mandate that would make publicly funded research available to the public may destroy what is currently a "strong and vibrant" system of scholarly communication. He quoted a government official who enumerated limits to the current administration's push for transparency: things that threaten "national security, invade personal privacy, breach confidentiality, or damage other genuinely compelling interests" might be exempt.

Breckler said the right of the APA to charge for access to the articles they publish is a "compelling interest" that should trump the public's right to the results of research their taxes fund. After all, the APA has created a valuable brand, and they spent a lot of money developing it. Requiring deposit of research might be acceptable, he acknowledged, so long as the feds paid the APA some kind of annual license fee, or if tax dollars were used to pay author fees that would pay for the publishing up front. But anything that might disrupt the current way of doing things was not acceptable.

His argument was echoed in a blog post this week by the executive director of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), William "Bill" Davis, who seems equally alarmed by the chance the government will apply the kind of rules the National Institutes of Health uses to other government agencies.

He writes, "it is essential that we formulate a strategy to sustain AAA's traditional journal publishing role as we engage with a world that expects scholarly content to be 'free.'" The association reportedly spends somewhere between $5000 to $7000 for each article it publishes. (AAA entered into a publishing agreement with the newly formed Wiley-Blackwell conglomerate in 2007.) The author concludes open access is just not going to work because it would be burdensome for anthropologists to come up with that kind of money for author fees. As is often the case, the assumption is that open access means "the author pays for everything." In fact, the majority of open access journals do not charge authors a fee.

Redefining terms
Both society spokesmen also note that most of the articles being downloaded are more than a year old; therefore a 12-month embargo (which may be all very well for those flighty folks in the physical and natural sciences) isn't nearly enough for the social sciences. It would have to last a decade or more to protect their revenue stream.

Breckler also told Congress that the public isn't served by being given access to all that difficult technical information anyway. He proposes an alternative: if the government is so eager for knowledge to be shared, federal agencies should hire science journalists to digest the results into more readable forms.

He also tried to finesse definitions. "Public access" doesn't have to mean "free access." The need for public access should be satisfied if the public is able to purchase information at a reasonable price. And apparently the current price is reasonable, because the current system is "strong and vibrant."

Valuing scholarship
Nobody disputes that this research is valuable. We wouldn't be fighting so hard to ensure that people have access to it otherwise. Nor do we argue that there are no costs involved in publishing. It's not true, however, that libraries are hoping to have a free ride. We're simply recognizing that under the current conditions, we can't afford to provide the kind of access that a "strong and vibrant" system of scholarly communication demands. And some scholarly societies apparently haven't gotten the memo.

You know we're in trouble when scholarly societies think in terms of protecting their brand rather than sharing authoritative knowledge.

As I write this, I am reading news of yet another university press shutting down. I'm reminded of those stacks that have a motion detector that turns on the lights when someone walks between them but otherwise are in the dark to save energy. It's a creepy feeling to be on a floor where the shelves are mostly shrouded in darkness, with only a small pool of light where you're standing, a light that you know will be doused as soon as you move on. When I look at our digital subscriptions, and the shrinking number of publications we can make available to our students and faculty with cuts year after year, I feel as if some malign force is flicking off the lights as we retreat, plunging whole ranges of knowledge at a time into darkness.

If we value high-quality scholarship, we're going to have to find a better way to prevent it from becoming a rare commodity.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), has just been published by Minotaur Books.

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