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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.]