Pricing Freedom in Science Publishing

There’s been another dustup between advocates of open access science publishing and the world of traditional subscription-based scientific journals. That’s pretty much like having my old friends shouting at my boss, so yes, I’ve paid attention.

In case you missed it, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes a very traditional journal called Science, is launching a new open access publication, Science Advances. AAAS also just hired a new publisher to oversee its journals, a fellow named Kent Anderson. Anderson has been a vocal critic of open access publishing. Perhaps you see where this is headed.

Sure enough, when Science Advances finally started up and outlined its requirements and fees, open access advocates began screaming. In the most prevalent open access business model, scientists pay the journal a fee to publish a paper, and in exchange the journal makes the paper available freely to the public rather than requiring an expensive subscription. Apparently, the page fees at Science Advances are higher than open access advocates feel is appropriate. They outlined this and other concerns in an open letter to the AAAS.

The letter makes four recommendations to AAAS. I have some problems with the first one, and it will take some unpacking:

1. [Offer] CC BY as standard for no additional cost, in line with leading open access publishers, so authors are able to comply with respective funding mandates;

The CC-BY license is the least restrictive Creative Commons copyright, allowing anyone to reuse, remix, resell, and otherwise adapt a piece of work however they want, so long as they cite the original author. That’s very attractive to grant-funded academics, whose careers depend on publishing highly-cited work. For academic scientists, it doesn’t matter who uses the work or how, so long as it’s been published and cited.

For publishers, it matters immensely. The ability to control commercial reuse of content is at the core of the traditional publishing business. Consequently, Science Advances uses a CC-BY-NC license by default, allowing people to reuse the work only if it’s for noncommercial purposes. If you want to reuse it commercially, you have to get permission from the AAAS. Authors who want their papers published under the less restrictive CC-BY license have to pay a higher page fee. The AAAS has determined what they think the commercial reuse of a scientific paper is worth, and attached a price to it.

This is where at least some of the open access advocates start to go astray. Much of the advocacy against the CC-BY-NC license is along the lines of “scientific ideas should be free” and “people have to be able to reuse data without restrictions.” Those arguments misrepresent what copyrights do. No copyright prevents anyone from reusing ideas or data. You can’t copyright ideas. It doesn’t matter if a research article is CC-BY or CC-BY-NC or All Rights Reserved, the only thing that’s protected is the presentation of the content. In other words, you can just put it in other words. I can write a book about a short guy who goes on a hike across a war zone to dispose of a piece of jewelry, and the Tolkien estate can’t sue me for it – unless I call him Frodo and give him a buddy named Samwise. This is why science operated just fine even when all the journals used maximally restrictive copyrights. The ideas and data have never been copyrighted, and can’t be.

Ultimately, the only coherent argument I’ve been able to get from open access proponents on this is that the CC-BY license will allow commercial indexing services to compile literature databases. Of course, they could also do that under the CC-BY-NC license, they’d just have to ask permission first, so that’s not exactly a strong argument. To be clear, I have no problem with scientists wanting to publish their work under CC-BY licenses. I do have a problem with scientists trying to dictate to publishers what such licenses are worth.

The “in line with leading open access publishers” bit refers to the apparent success of Public Library of Science (PLoS). PLoS finally broke even in 2010, and has turned a nice profit in the past four years, all while using the CC-BY license by default. That’s great, but it’s not the whole story. What finally made PLoS profitable was the PLoS ONE paper mill. Unlike a traditional journal, PLoS ONE doesn’t require that papers be groundbreaking or interesting, just technically valid. With the bar thus lowered, PLoS ONE cranks out out tens of thousands of papers a year. The page charges from that avalanche of papers catapulted the whole PLoS operation into the black. Saying that PLoS proves the sustainability of open access publishing is like saying proves the sustainability of the corner bookstore.

Now back to the open letter, the rest of which is easier to annotate:

2. [Provide] a transparent calculation of its APCs based on the publishing practices of the AAAS and [explain] how additional value created by the journal will measure against the significantly high prices paid by the authors;

Read: Disclose proprietary business information so your competitors can see.

3. [Remove] the surcharges associated with increased page number;

Read: Eat the extra costs when we want to blather on for twenty pages.

4. [Release] all data files under CC0 (with CC BY optional), which has emerged as the community standard for data and is used by leading databases such as Figshare and DataDryad.

I’m less familiar with data release standards than text copyrights, but I think this is another version of the same demand made in (1).

At this point, it probably sounds like I oppose open access. I don’t. It’s wonderful to be able to read the latest papers without having to jump over paywalls or pester the authors for PDFs, and it’s great that I can link to papers and know that readers can access them. But all of those things are possible without an absolutist insistence on a CC-BY license.

As someone who has run a small but consistently profitable business for the past sixteen years, I also find it galling to see a crowd of academics acting as if they’re qualified to tell a publisher how to price a publication.

I have a dog in this fight. As I implied in the first paragraph, I work for some traditional publishers, including the AAAS. This blog is completely independent of them, so don’t interpret this as any kind of official statement; they’re quite capable of speaking for themselves. I’ll just raise a few questions for researchers to ponder.

When you pick up a copy of Science or Nature, and see a cool graphic on the cover, then news articles in the front, then perhaps a special section of additional coverage on some issue related to science, and then finally the research papers, what parts do you enjoy? Do you know who paid the artist for the cover? Any idea what it costs to put together a regular magazine news section? Would you like those parts to go away? How about the whole print edition – can we chuck that too, and go exclusively online?

The reason I ask is that so far, that’s been exactly what most open access journals have offered: research articles, served online, hold the extras. Everyone I’ve spoken to in the open access movement has said that they appreciate science journalism and would love to support it. To date, none have done so.

I don’t believe open access advocates are trying to undercut science journalists and illustrators, any more than the developers of Craigslist set out to kill newspapers. But if researchers continue to make ideologically-driven demands on publishers without understanding how those demands might affect the business, that could be the result we get.