The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has done academic librarians a huge favor. When it publicly got behind the Research Works Act, it accomplished something librarians have been trying to do for decades. It turned a lot of scholars into open access activists.
Until now, the majority of the academics we work with found the phrase “scholarly communication” a little bogus. It’s not an expression scholars use themselves. It’s a slogan that marks the speaker as a librarian, concerned about library stuff and trying to drag busy researchers into their parochial problems. Those who are sympathetic to libraries tended to believe it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed by increasing the library’s budget. Those who couldn’t be bothered had more important things to do. Of course, it’s not just librarians doing the work; there have been strong open access advocates in the disciplines for years, but they haven’t been able to make much headway against tradition, either.
But we have suddenly taken a nice hop, if not a great leap, forward. Whoever wrote the AAP statement supporting the bill deserves a few valentines from us, because it managed to push buttons we had so far been unable to reach.
Perhaps scholars were jarred by the association’s indignation about the “unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles.” Hold on a minute. Isn’t that what journal articles are for, to disseminate ideas? How can it be unauthorized if the granting agency expects it? And what’s wrong with free? It’s not like researchers actually pay for the articles they use.
But it’s the rest of that sentence that is real genius. The AAP lays claim to “producing” the research they publish.
Whoa, stand back. Things could get a little ugly.
Whose research is it, anyway?
One response is a website created by programmer and mathematician Tyler Neylon, in response to a blog post by another prominent mathematician who has had it with Elsevier. As I write this, 3,025 researchers have signed a pledge to neither write nor review articles for journals published by Elsevier. (That’s up from 2,852 when I started to write this piece.) Why Elsevier? It’s not the only abusive for-profit publisher, but it got its reputation the old fashioned way: it earned it. Besides, it has consistently pushed for legislation that will protect its high profit margins. When one of the congressional representatives who sponsored the bill, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), responded to a critic, her letter had passages that seemed to be lifted straight from comments made elsewhere by an Elsevier spokesman. Very cozy.
The letter also raised a scaremongering, though extraordinarily silly, objection that has been raised in the past as publishers argue against federal research mandates: a xenophobic fear of foreigners. “Two-thirds of the access to PubMed central is from non-US users,” Maloney wrote. “In effect, current law is giving our overseas scientific competitors in China and elsewhere important information for free.” Apart from seeming to claim that the NIH is leaking state secrets that would not otherwise fall into the hands of foreigners, she seems to have forgotten that many of the companies that would benefit from this bill and have lobbied hard for it are based overseas, too, and benefit hugely from the free basic research our tax dollars support.
Oh, that’s what the fine print really means
The question of who legally owns the copyright to research articles has been sublimely unimportant to most scholars. Who cares, so long as the article gets published? It’s just a formality, right? They didn’t care so long as the transfer of copyright was just a little paperwork. But when publishers begin to make noises that they actually produce the research themselves, and that the handling they do makes the articles theirs in a way that goes well beyond red tape, scholars get hot under the collar.
Supporters of the act tell the authors of these journals that they are free to do what they like with their research—lab notebooks and data sets. That’s acceptable, and researchers should be content with that. But once the article the researcher wrote is submitted to a journal, the journal’s back office work transforms it into unique and valuable intellectual property that thereafter belongs to private sector interests, the act’s supporters claim. The authors have no claim to those articles at all.
Librarians have been pointing this out for years, without having much impact. But we never put it quite so bluntly: publishers not only own the publication rights to your work, they totally own that research. Scholars would scoff if a librarian made that claim, but when the publisher comes right out and says it—that’s a good way to get a researcher hopping mad.
Or you could just try to explain to a scientist what “peer review” means, as the congresswoman patronizingly does in her letter. That works, too.
A boycott announcement signed by a few thousand researchers won’t change the status quo. (Oh, look at that, it’s up to 3,118 now.) Changing cultures is a slow process, and the rituals of submitting research to the right journals is deeply embedded in the disciplines. Alternatives are available, but not as well established. Scholars frequently don’t realize that journals they respect are owned by Elsevier or SAGE or another publisher with high profit margins. They may not realize that their scholarly society has outsourced their publishing operations to a multinational corporation that has every reason to restrict access to the society’s body of knowledge. But it’s time they figured it out.
They’re smart people. They’ll get there eventually, particularly if they use the kind of simple, unemotional logic that Fields medalist Timothy Gowers used in his post about boycotting Elsevier:
I don’t think it is helpful to accuse Elsevier of immoral behaviour: they are a big business and they want to maximize their profits, as businesses do. I see the argument as a straightforward practical one. Yes, they are like that, as one would expect, but we have much greater bargaining power than we are wielding at the moment, for the very simple reason that we don’t actually need their services. That is not to say that morality doesn’t come into it, but the moral issues are between mathematicians and other mathematicians rather than between mathematicians and Elsevier. In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.
Simple as that.