Why aren’t we agitating for open-access groceries?

Photo: Onions, own work.  The photo, not the onions, I mean.

Warning: very strange thought experiment.

Calls for us to make our literature open-access have become a routine thing, and many of them are quite impassioned.  I’m thinking, for example, of folks who announce that they will only review for open-access journals, or even those who announce (bizarrely) that they will only read open-access papers.  There’s a widespread belief that open-access literature is not just a social good (which it surely is) but an important social good, perhaps even a critical social good*.

But there’s something odd here.  It isn’t the argument itself (which we certainly ought to be having); instead, it’s where we stop making it.  Because you know what else ought to be open-access?  Groceries.

Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous; but there are actually some non-trivial parallels.  Stay with me for a bit.

  • Easy, and income-independent, access by the public to scientific research results (especially high-impact work) would be a good thing for society. So would easy, and income-independent, access by the public to groceries (especially high-quality food).
  • Consumers of scientific research already don’t pay its full cost. Instead, producers (us) are publicly subsidized – directly, via salaries and research grants; and indirectly, via use of libraries, labs, and other infrastructure.  The same is true for consumers of food.  Food producers receive heavy public subsidies – directly, via government payments to farmers; and indirectly, as in shipping via publicly-built roads and other infrastructure.  In either case, one could in principle decrease or increase these subsidies to have consumers pay a larger or smaller share of production costs (even a zero share, which is open access).
  • In scientific publishing, “middlemen” (commercial publishers) reap profit by distributing research they didn’t produce. In groceries, too, “middlemen” (trucking companies, wholesalers, and grocers) reap profit by distributing food they didn’t produce**.

  • Profit streams to commercial publishers encourage peculiar and unproductive behaviour, such as chasing impact factor in an attempt to manipulate consumer preference toward expensive glam journals. Profit streams to grocery distributors encourage peculiar and unproductive behaviour, such as heavy spending on advertising to manipulate consumer preference toward high-margin, heavily processed food over lower-margin fresh produce and staples.
  • We have somewhat kludgy systems in place to enhance access to for-profit publishing by those who need it. Some of these are large-scale, such as programs to subsidize or discount journal access in the developing world.  Others are small-scale, such as university postprint archives and authors who post pdfs (not to mention #icanhazpdf). We have similarly kludgy systems to enhance access to for-profit groceries by those who need them.  Countries have large-scale systems like tax credits, welfare payments, and food stamps; towns and neighbourhoods have small-scale systems like food banks and community gardens.

So for our literature, and also for groceries, one can imagine a system in which resources flow to consumers to allow them to buy what they need (the paywall system); or a system in which resources flow to producers, so they can distribute what consumers need (the open-access system).  If we’re excited about the latter model being vastly superior for the literature, why do we think differently about groceries?  Or books, or pharmaceuticals, or specialized reagents (to which all the same arguments seem to apply, perhaps less forcedly)?

Now, you might think I’m making a real argument for open-access groceries.  But my point today actually isn’t that groceries should be open-access (although maybe they should be), or for that matter that the scientific literature shouldn’t.  My real point is that I’m intrigued by the peculiar compartmentalization of our thinking about these things.  We’re scientists, and the stereotype is thus that we’re rational thinkers all the time, and that we disapprove of, or even are offended by, those who aren’t.  But it isn’t true (of course).  Our use of rational thinking is often bounded, and as a result we think things (and construct arguments) that would probably look silly even to ourselves, if we somehow saw across that boundedness.  Agitating for open-access papers but not books, literature but not reagents, and science but not groceries, seems to me like a case in point.  Am I nuts?  I’m sure you’ll tell me so in the Replies***.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) February 20, 2017


*^Of course, a move to complete open access would also have very large transition costs, including a complete redesign of our funding system for universities, libraries, and research.  And there would surely be unintended consequences to be dealt with.  But none of that is my point today.

**^We object fervently to the profit Elsevier makes, but not to the profit J.B. Hunt Transport Services makes. There may be some oligopoly- and bundling-related reasons for this, but I don’t think everyone making the objections has thought these through.

***^Rationally and with support for argument, please.  Tweeting “Check out the dumbest thing I’ve read this week” doesn’t count.  Although I’m pretty sure someone will do that.  [UPDATE: Well, that didn’t take long. First day, two different people. When called out on it, one was graceful enough to apologize. The other, not so much… Which I guess only goes to show that we’re all human, and that people making principled stands for something they believe in aren’t immune from human urges to behave poorly, and to double down when called on it.  Oh well.]

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39 thoughts on “Why aren’t we agitating for open-access groceries?

  1. chinitocolapso

    Interesting arguments!. Well, there is this whole movement of open science (which includes open reagents, pharmaceuticals and science in general) but yes, definitely not with the same amount of people asking for open access. Maybe is just a matter of time and people will start asking more for open science in general and open access is just the first step? Nice entry, it made me think a lot!

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  2. Peter Apps

    It’s an intriguing argument – and open access literature is probably the other side of the NIMBY coin.

    If the literature is groceries, then the supply chain looks like this; I am a gardener who selects a patch of waste ground, identifies its potential to be a garden, tills and fertilises the soil for several years and then plants a seed. By hard work I nurture the plant that grows from the seed, and finally I harvest its fruit (or roots or whatever). I send the fruit off to a grocer, who sends it to some other gardeners to look at. Those other gardeners say it needs to be a bit redder, and they don’t like the leaves hanging from the stalk, but it will be OK with these minor improvements. They deliver these opinions at no cost to the grocer. The grocer sends the fruit back to me and I ripen it a bit more and trim off the offending leaves, then send it back to the grocer. The grocer puts the fruit in a box, sends it to me to check that the box and fruit are OK, then puts it in his shop window – and charges people just to look at it. The grocer gets mightily upset when someone takes a picture of the fruit and posts it on the internet so that everyone can look at it.

    Who is the grocer exploiting though ? I get thrown a daily crust to produce scientific literature and I am not so naive as to think that I would get more for my work if the literature that others produce was open access. Arguably, grant money could be stretched further if none of it went in library fees but I suspect that the fraction of the total science budget that is paid for literature is very very small indeed; the massive profits of the big publishers come from little sips of a huge lake of resources. That does not mean that I think that the prices for open access, or to get a .pdf of a single copy of a paper are not absurdly high considering the inputs that the publishers make.

    One problem with a pure open access model is the lack of a gate-keeper; with all their faults the reputable publishers do have a stake in not publishing the kind of drivel that appears in the pay for play predatory journals. If groceries are free you have to sort through huge piles of them to find ones that you can actually eat. Although it is fashionable to bleat that peer review is broken, it is nowhere near as broken as the alternative.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Fun analysis! I love the idea of sending a peach back to the farmer to make it redder 🙂

      I think your past paragraph risks conflating “open access” with “predatory”. While you probably have to be open-access to go predatory, you absolutely can’t conclude that going OA makes your predatory. Two different arguments IMO (although I’ll admit neither is really on point to the post).

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      1. Elinor

        At least in the US, most new varieties of crops do go through “peer view” before being made commercially available. This includes all sorts of testing for factors that farmers, grocers and consumers care about (e.g., pest resistance, tolerance to local climatic conditions, taste, texture, durability). I used to be in the same building as a food sciences department, and they were constantly advertising for people to participate in blinded taste tests of products and varieties being developed for market.

        A lot of these new varieties are developed by scientists at public land grant universities or the USDA.

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      2. Peter Apps

        You are right that not all OA publishers are predators, but when authors are paying to publish the readership matters less than if readers are paying to read – and then there is surely a temptation to please the authors by just publishing whatever they present. Ethics are just a finger in the hole through the dike – I have read some truly dreadful rubbish in respectable-looking journals that are OA but not on Beall’s list; stuff that should never have appeared in print.

        Outside science you find vanity publishers; operations that, for a price, will put anything an author provides into a book. Pay-to-publish OA in science brings that approach into science.

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    2. Chris Mebane

      So Gardener, would matters be improved if after all your labors and costs bringing your product to the Grocer, the Grocer then demanded that you pay another $1500 Grocery Processing Fee to pay Grocer for the cost of giving away your produce for free? The food=publishing analogy now starts falling apart, but my objection to the OA model is that it shifts the costs of publishing from an indirect cost supported by my library (and all subscribers) directly onto me. Sticking it to the authors has all sorts of unintended consequences. OA sounds egalitarian, yet those authors at prosperous institutions or access to generous funding trusts thrive, where those without support for article fees go hungry. The rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor. In my middlebrow case, on fortunate projects I would have adequate funding to pay the OA fee for the main product (with an budget offset of samples not analyzed or field days not taken). Yet the secondary analyses and paper written out of pure curiosity on nights and weekends long after the funding is gone won’t happen if there is a hefty OA publishing fee.

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      1. Peter Apps

        Hi Chris, you ask a very penetrating question ! And the answer is No, it would not be better.

        What would be better than either the pay-to-publish or pay-to-read models as the currently operate is for the costs that are charged for both to reflect actual costs of production, which in the internet age should surely have dropped substantially compared to the days when journals were real physical objects and manuscripts went back and forward by post and were typeset by hand.

        Maybe publishing costs a lot more than I think that it does (I am sure that someone has done an analysis that all the publishers reject), but it does seem as if we are being charged Hollywood prices for posting on Youtube !

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  3. Michael James

    The critical difference between groceries and research papers is that grocery stores add a tremendous amount of value and publishers don’t. Publishers used to provide value, but no longer. The sensible debate isn’t open access or not; it’s about eliminating rent-seekers. Publishers seek rent and give almost nothing back. One could argue that grocery stores get too much rent for the value they bring, but there’s no doubt that they offer important value.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      The question of publisher value added is a big one. I’m not convinced that (most) publishers add little value. My own work is vastly improved by peer review (although granted, that’s not just the publisher!), and at least in my own field there are journals that give significant distribution/visibility compared to what PLoS One gives. But this landscape is certainly changing.

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          1. Michael James

            Perhaps we just have different definitions of the word “journal”. I think of the journal as independent of the publisher. If the publisher went away, all the volunteers would have to do is create a web site and the journal would continue to exist minus the dead trees. So, I get value from a journal, but not from the publisher.

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              1. Michael James

                I don’t know of any examples where the publisher has gone away entirely (but I only know the inner workings of a few journals). The Journal of Cryptology has been on a long, slow road to eliminating paywall-related nonsense. Papers are generally available free online to anyone who takes the time to do a Google search, but officially, non-members of the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) are supposed to pay the publisher for access to papers. The IACR has been retaining copyright of papers for some time now, and each time they renegotiate with the publisher, the terms become more “open”. They keep tinkering with how long papers can be accessed for free before going behind the paywall. Various other rules are getting relaxed as well. At this point, all important journal-related decisions are made by the IACR rather than the publisher. I think the process has been slow for two reasons. One is that the publisher is needed to create dead-tree copies for the few people who still care about paper. Another more important reason is being careful not to harm the journal impact factor.

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    2. Elizabeth Moon

      Speaking here as a professional writer with some 30 years of experience, including traditional publishing at both large and small publishing houses, a few small press publications and multiple blogs and websites: it is not correct to say that publishers do not provide value and “give almost nothing back.” Granted, all my experience is non-academic. But I do know what publishers of any size provide and why it adds value to the raw text.

      1. Good publishers add expert editing and copy-editing. Few if any writers, however talented and experienced, produce a manuscript that cannot be improved by an expert pair of eyes–expert not just in writing coherent sentences, but in shaping the work to its purpose (the writer’s purpose.) And even the main editor needs another set of eyes to find those nits that familiarity hides from both writer and content editor. Both positions require training and experience, which family friends and colleagues are unlikely to possess. Editing and copy editing both take time–and usually several passes back and forth before the text is ready for typesetting. Editors also need to eat and pay the utility bill, so editing (and copy editing) is a non-trivial expense, whether in print or in electronic publishing. (E-publishing adds the additional requirement to work with multiple reading platforms, both hardware and software, both stable as in a desktop and mobile devices each of which has its own quirks.)

      2. Good publishers add expert formatting and design to a work. Formatting and design determine how easily visible the elements of a work are. This includes choice of font, font size, font color, background color, margins, line and page breaks, chapter breaks, and other elements For scientific writing, judging the size, spacing, and placement of equations, the designs of graphs and charts, the size and placement of images all affect ease of comprehension. Many expert writers are not trained in graphic design. Yes, some writers do know something about graphic design–but the internet demonstrates that many do not (for those interested, Edward Tufte’s books on conveying information graphically are a great resource. Expensive, but worth it; I own a set.) Good design takes time, often several tries for the more difficult bits, so that the reader doesn’t have to stop and look four times at a map, chart, graph, or image to figure out what it’s trying to convey. And designers, like editors, need to be paid, and this is a non-trivial expense.

      3. The final thing that publishers add: they save writers time and effort. They provide the editor, the copy editor, the formatting across all platforms, both print and electronic, the design, and the brand (the journal’s reputation and distribution) that enhances the chance the work will be read. For print publications, they also provide the physical product and its physical distribution, from cover design to postage to move it to subscribers. This allows writers to concentrate on the writing itself, and get more writing/teaching/workshopping/research done. If writers (nonacademic or academic) actually had to do all the things publishers do for their own work they would have much less time for everything else…and they would also spend money on some aspects of this.

      So publishers, in my opinion, add considerable value. Whether they add “enough” to be worth the cost of a subscription is up to the reader. But if they don’t make enough to cover their expenses and make some profit, they go under and are not seen again. I do think it is unreasonable for academic publishers to both demand payment by academic writers and charge steadily increasing prices to subscribers, especially if they also sell advertising.

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      1. Peter Apps

        Hi Elizabeth

        I have published both inside and outside scientific journals – peer reviewed papers in the the journals over a period that spans paper to .pdf, and physical books and magazine articles about animals and their behaviour for lay audiences and non-specialists.

        The most important difference between publishing in the science journals and publishing elsewhere is that most of the added value in the science publishing chain in added by volunteers, referees don’t get paid and they often include copy editing as part of their contribution (I used to but the drain in time has become too much). The layout for figures etc is specified in advance, and included in the instructions for authors, which we ignore at our peril, so the authors do the layout. Authors proof their work in both fields, but not all scientific publishers include their own proofing.

        In both fields the publishers add some value, the problem in science publishing is that the source of most of the added value is unpaid volunteers, but still the publishers add a hefty charge to the price of the final product, and take the margin as profit.

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      2. Michael James

        Hi Elizabeth,

        All the services you describe are valuable, but for the journals I contribute to, publishers haven’t done them for more than a decade. All the publisher does is take many latex files produced and improved by volunteers, combine them into one, and charge for access.

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  4. Chris Mebane

    Of course if groceries had an open access funding model, it would fully shift the purchase costs from the consumer (reader-eater) of groceries to the producer. Thus, in addition to the cost of production, the farmer-producer would pay their open access fee to support the middle man (the grocer) so the consumer can eat for free. However, pending this Monte Pythonesque makeover of groceries stores to full open access, open access advocates have come up with a different solution: Get the keys to warehouse from a disgruntled or clueless employee, unlock the loading dock door in the dead of night, load up and give it all away. This is the SciHub free access model, aka theft, aka the Robin Hood Outlaw Open Access, model or OOA for short. The SOA (Scofflaw Open Access, aka ResearchGate and the like) is an intermediate model.

    Despite frustration with the unfalsifiable beliefs and selective arguments by OA true believers*, I hope the OA, OOA, and SOA pressure is disruptive enough to publishers that they are forced to work together and improve matters. My gripe-of-the-day is the $35 single article purchase price for unsubscribed content that is the going rate from the major publishers. I expect sales are a pittance, for the extreme cost seems to be intended to discourage sales. Yet if they priced it at say, $2 an article, I would often pay that for the convenience of having it while I’m digging into the topic, rather than in a couple of weeks if my trusty librarian is able to find it from a cooperating library. The online music industry may be the model for this. Piracy was rampant in the early 00s, but now the convenience and low costs of the Spotify/Amazon/Apple etc. services seems to be more attractive than going to the hassle of tracking down bootleg versions for “free.” It ain’t free. My time is worth something to me too.

    Good essay. Glad to see the discussions.

    *not to be confused with frustration at Impact Factor Hounds and their perverse incentives.

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  5. peterjmayhew

    When we consume electronic information, we don’t deplete that information. Thus, there is something about it’s “foreverness” that equates it to, say, art. If we didn’t deplete food when we consumed it, then I think there would be a greater argument for open access food, since we would only need to go make it once. Put another way, if everytime someone read a line of an article, someone had to re-print it (as with hard-copy journals), the argument for open access literature would be much reduced. Don’t you think?

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      1. François Morlet

        At least I think it is a more honest comparison, as it is also protected by copyright law (mostly).
        Now, is copyright legislation fulfilling or hindering its original function ? (“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”, U.S. Constitution 1.8.8)

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      2. peterjmayhew

        I think it’s a better analogy, yes, but a useful comparison as I can see I need to weadle out other reasons for feelings underlying acceptability. One might be the link between salary and immediate consumption.

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  6. Matt Ruen (@winterking07)

    (In the interests of engaging with this post via something other than twitter snark…)

    I see a couple of big points missing from your groceries vs literature comparison, and they’re elements that have been pretty well-discussed in conversations around open access.

    First, as peterjmayhew notes, digital content is non-rivalrous– when I consume a digital copy of a journal article, I’m not preventing anyone else from doing the same. The physical limitations of print materials (or groceries) mean that cost barriers are inevitable and necessary; the open access movement only kicked off after the internet made non-rivalrous, non-physical information sharing feasible.

    Secondly (and this is equally important), the people who produce groceries only do so because they are able to sell access to their groceries. The people who produce scholarly work will do so regardless of whether you buy access to that work, and if you do buy access the original creators don’t see a cent. Scholars are paid by their University or funding agency to do research, write up their results, and engage in peer review; commercial publishers extract profit by selling access to work they didn’t have to pay for. (Yes, publishing does still cost a certain amount of money, even in the digital age, and there are a lot of ongoing experiments on how to cover digital publishing costs. But at heart, the commercial academic publishing business model is getting a product for free, then selling that product back to everyone who paid for its creation in the first place.)

    These two themes–technological change which removes physical scarcity, and content creators whose goals do not involve selling access to their content–are central to the original Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration (15 years ago this month): http://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for commenting! I don’t want to stretch my original point too far (because I’m not intending to argue anti-OA). But I’ve never fully understood why digital vs. physical is transformative to the argument. It is true that the two have different cost functions, but they are not completely different. For physical, there is a set-up cost, a per-copy manufacturing cost and a per-copy distribution cost; the total per-copy cost is what matters (right?), and the per-copy cost is a declining function of the number of copies supplied or consumed. For digital, per-copy manufacturing and distribution costs may be very small (although unlikely truly zero); but there are still set-up costs. As a result, the per-copy cost is still a declining function of the number of copies. As either a producer of scientific papers or as a consumer, I’m not sure (therefore) how the presumable difference in this slope is what sells me on OA or non-OA. That doesn’t make OA a bad idea, but it’s why I’ve never seen the overwhelming force of the digital-vs-physical argument..

      The second point seems equally at a tangent. It is true that under the current system, producers of food do so only because consumers will pay for the food. But that’s only because you’re assuming the present system. There is no reason at all why tax dollars could not pay for the production of food, rather than direct consumer dollars. In fact, this system has been done. You can argue that recent large-scale experience is poor (I’d prefer not a “communism!” flame war), but many societies (both recent and much longer ago) have adopted such a system of society-funded farm labour with open access food. Again, this doesn’t make OA for papers a bad idea! And groceries are just a thought experiment (admittedly, as advertised, a strange one). It’s just that it’s (still) difficult for me to see why OA for books (to take a less strange example) isn’t ALSO a good idea; and you don’t hear that argument much.

      I find it useful to think these things through – even if it sometimes means not accepting the orthodoxy at face value!

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        [ Later, because I posted the comment above in the evening, when I’m generally dumber than a rock, and I left one important thing out…]

        But with respect to supply of digital vs. physical copies of something, there is of course one difference, and that comes in the potential total supply of copies. For a digital product, because the per-copy marginal cost is very small, the total supply can be very large, presumably large enough to meet conceivable demand (I’ll never write the paper that turns into a DoS attack on the journal’s website). For a physical product, paid for at the producer end (likely by society, not by the producer; i.e., grant-funded OA), a finite producer payment will cover a finite number of copies. If that number of copies meets whatever the demand is, there’s no problem (and past history has shown this can indeed be done with food!). If that number of copies is insufficient to meet total demand, then there is a need for rationing. That’s simple enough: it can be first-come, first-served (as is the case with the few OA books I know of; and, albeit with inefficient distribution, as was the case with the old paper-reprint model). The rationing can of course take all kinds of more sophisticated forms. It’s an open empirical question how often demand will much exceed a reasonable producer/society-paid supply. So, in summary: there still seems no reason that digital vs. physical is determinative. Instead, for a physical-copy OA model, there may need to be a simple constraint: OA up to a finite number of copies. I suppose one could somehow argue that “finite-copy OA” is no better than “full consumer pay”; but that’s a very different argument from “you can’t do OA with physical things”, isn’t it?

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      2. Marc Couture

        OA for books (more precisely scholarly monographs) *is* a good idea, and many are now seriously working on it. It’s just making its way at a slower pace. But in the end it may succeed where OA to scientific articles will most probably fail, namely providing OA without author-side processing charges (APCs). See, for instance, the Knowledge Unlatched initiative http://knowledgeunlatched.org

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      3. Jeff Houlahan

        Hi Steve, probably the reason people agitate for open access to journals rather than food is that the activation energy is just so much smaller. The distance between where we are now ( scientists happy to give the fruits of their labour away for free, much of the quality control being done by volunteers, minimal distribution infrastructure required) and where we need to be for open access just doesn’t seem very far. Food, on the other hand…. Best, Jeff.

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  7. Stevan Harnad

    Because farmers, unlike researchers, earn their livelihood by selling their products, whereas researcherss earn their livelihood by giving their published articles away for free, to maximize their research uptake, use, applications and impact. And that’s what publishers’ access tolls block.

    Harnad, Stevan (2001/2003/2004) For Whom the Gate Tolls? http://cogprints.org/1639/ Published as: (2003) Open Access to Peer-Reviewed Research Through Author/Institution Self-Archiving: Maximizing Research Impact by Maximizing Online Access. In: Law, Derek & Judith Andrews, Eds. Digital Libraries: Policy Planning and Practice. Ashgate Publishing 2003. [Shorter version: Harnad S. (2003) Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 49: 337-342.] and in: (2004) Historical Social Research (HSR) 29:1. [French version: Harnad, S. (2003) Cielographie et cielolexie: Anomalie post-gutenbergienne et comment la resoudre. In: Origgi, G. & Arikha, N. (eds) Le texte a l’heure de l’Internet. Bibliotheque Centre Pompidou: Pp. 77-103. http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Temp/texte2.pdf ]

    Harnad, Stevan (2015) Open Access: What, Where, When, How and Why. In: Ethics, Science, Technology, and Engineering: An International Resource eds. J. Britt Holbrook & Carl Mitcham, (2nd edition of Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, Farmington Hills MI: MacMillan Reference) http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/361704/

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      1. Stevan Harnad

        I am a vegan, completely opposed to the “use” of animals for meat or fur or entertainment. I was speaking of plant-farming in relation to open access to scientific research above. Researchers give their research away whereas farmers need to sell their produce to earn a living. But that is true of vegan farmers too!

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  8. Elizabeth Moon

    I may have missed it in the preceding comments but….a couple of observations.

    1. Non-open access–paywalled–academic writing is perceived (not entirely correctly) as being aimed at a privileged group: highly educated (or in the process of becoming so) readers who are assumed to have access to academic writing for free via academic libraries or professional society libraries. This is, in part, a reality lag; when I was in college and graduate school, I had access to both a university library and a medical school library; between them, they had subscriptions to any publication I needed (or thought I needed.) As an alum, I also had reading (though not borrowing) library privileges at yet another university library.

    Increases in the cost of subscriptions, increasing number of publications, and tightening budgets were, however, beginning to cramp academic libraries by then. And once I was no longer associated with a university, and living an inconvenient distance from one, it was harder to get access to the papers I wanted to read. It can be argued that citizens who are not themselves doing academic work don’t “need” access to it, but this I think is a mistake, and contributes to the anti-science attitude of society that is now causing us political problems.

    2. Groceries: In terms of basic human needs, open access groceries could do more good to more people than open access academic writing…any person can benefit from eating enough, and better, food, but it does take some years of education to digest academic papers and convert them to useful thought and action. And better nutrition for children, in particular, would improve their ability to concentrate and learn in school. In the USA, the existing means for providing ‘open access’ food to those who can’t afford it are inefficient and insufficient both. We have not so far managed to make sufficient nourishing food available to many even when they qualify for food aid–and the rules imposed on the poor so that they don’t “waste” their food credits are both draconian and insulting.

    At present, even the graduate student struggling to make it is in fact more privileged than the mother of four living in extreme poverty without adequate public transportation to get to a good grocery store selling fresh produce (for instance), and it would make much more sense to subsidize that family’s groceries (and public transportation) than to provide open access to that grad student. I would not argue that either farmers or producers of academic research and its publication should work for nothing..everybody eats, everybody drinks, everybody needs to be recompensed for the work they do. (And as a freelance writer, without any kind of salary to carry me between one sale and another, I’m VERY aware of this. Aware as well of the cost of groceries, and the distance to the nearest source of a good supermarket–20 miles, either direction, from this town. And we subscribe to three science journals (one online only) and two medical journals, so yeah, I know what it costs once you start taking more than one, to feed your hungry curiosity.)

    Prioritizing budgets…looking for new models of economic survival…is prone to spurts of easy ideas, all of which (in my opinion) turn out to be simplistic and unworkable in the long run (farm subsidies that end up subsidizing something other than the intended outcome, or an outcome that is ecologically unsound; food subsidies that promote a single nutritional theory.) Among other flaws, these are easily picked up as political footballs, to be treated as game pieces with only binary win/lose thinking. I’m not fond of paywalls (esp. since my attempt to pay for online access to periodicals has so far not been successful for me…I lose access after some months and the source–whatever it is–can’t manage to get me reconnected. And canceling a subscription can be a long, complicated struggle once that automatic payment is hooked onto one’s credit card.)

    At any rate: I would love both open access to groceries AND academic journals–who wouldn’t?–and thoroughly enjoy online access when I can find it. But someone’s got to get that content published in the first place, and publishing is actual work.

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  9. David Mellor

    I just saw this ethical dilemma on twitter and thought it could add to the conversation: “Sci-Hub and medical practice: an ethical dilemma in Peru” http://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(16)30188-7/fulltext

    The gist: is it a moral imperative to make pay-walled content freely available to those who cannot pay if that content can save/improve lives? There are of course programs to get content to where it is needed, but those leave many out of the loop. I suspect that most people would not fault the doctor described in this scenario, which suggests that sci-hub is providing a moral benefit.

    This scenario essentially poses the same moral question as the often used “is it ethical to steal medicine to save a life?” The only additional twist is the fact that digital piracy does not leave the victim unable to sell the medicine to others; the victim only “loses” the compensation that may or may not have been paid by the person who is unable to pay.

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  10. Pingback: Friday links: impost-R syndrome, RIP Axios Review, open access groceries, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  11. Chris Mebane

    What is this, International Open Access to Groceries Week?  Over at Scholarly Kitchen, Rick Anderson wrote “OA is not the salesperson standing by the produce section handing out small bites of pineapple on toothpicks; OA is putting the whole produce section out on the sidewalk and inviting everyone to take as much as they want.”  I just thought, well it’s late winter in New Brunswick and maybe they get a little touched with cabin fever in those parts, especially squirrel hunting ecologists. But twice within a day? It’s a thing.

    Stephen Heard expertly trolls the open access evangelists by asking why they aren’t also arguing for open access groceries,” eh?  Evangelism is  the right word. When I saw long comments from someone about the  Journal of Cryptology, I mistook cryptology (study of encryption, computer science) for cryptozoology (study of chupacabras, Bigfoot, Yeti, and the monsters endemic to all large lakes).  The former? What the heck’s he doing on an ecology blog?  There must be quite a few people with search antennas primed to anything about open-access, ready to fire upon any public doubters.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, in our cryptology friend’s defence, he’s a good friend of mine from undergrad days. It’s a nice perspective to add.

      (When I typed that first, it came out “cryptology fiend”. Tempted to leave that typo right in there…)

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  12. Carl Boettiger

    One might argue that open access would make publishing function a lot more like a grocery-store does today. The subscription-based model is no longer “reader pays,” like it was before the internet when individual readers subscribed to individual journals. Instead, the institution buys a whole bundle of journals, often under contracts that forbid disclosing the price. Imagine you could only buy groceries as bundle that included everything you did and didn’t eat, that you had no choice or information about alternative prices, and that grocery stores, instead of living on the razor thin profit margins they do today due to intense competition, were making net profits between 30-40% thanks to power of bundling and selling via private contract.

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  13. Brian Waters

    A bit of a tangent, but I have been left wondering where professional society or university publishers (e.g. ASPB, SEB, ASA-CSSA-CSSA in my field, OUP) fit into the general pro-OA argument. Elsevier and the like are attacked for being for-profit and charging for access (the paywall), but as far as I know the society journals are not-for-profit and still charge for access. Some of them do have optional OA.

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