For (not against) a better publishing model

I was unhappy to see this piece on the American Sociological Association (ASA) blog by Karen Edwards, the director of publications and membership.

The post is about Sci-Hub, the international knowledge-stealing ring that allows anyone to download virtually any paywalled academic paper for free. (I wrote about it, with description of how it’s used, here.) Without naming me or linking to the post, Edwards takes issue with pieces like mine. She writes:

ASA, other scholarly societies, and our publishing partners have been dismayed by some of the published comments about Sci-Hub that present its theft as a kind of “Robin Hood” fairy tale by characterizing the “victims” as greedy publishers feasting on the profits of expensive individual article downloads by needy researchers.

My first objection is, “ASA … have been dismayed.” There have been many debates about who speaks for ASA, especially when the association took positions on legal issues (their amicus briefs are here). And I’m sure the ASA executives send out letters all the time saying, ASA thinks this or that. But when it’s about policy issues like this post (and when I don’t agree), then I think it’s wrong without some actual process involving the membership. The more extreme case, on this same issue, was when the executive officer, Sally Hillsman, sent this letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy objecting to the federal government’s move toward open access — which most of us only found out about because Fabio Rojas posted it on OrgTheory.

My second objection is to the position taken. In Edwards’ view, the existence of Sci-Hub, “threatens the well-being of ASA and our sister associations as well as the peer assessment of scholarship in sociology and other academic disciplines.”

Because, in her opinion, without paywalls — and Sci-Hub presumably threatens to literally end paywalls — the system of peer reviewed scholarly output would literally die. As I pointed out in my original piece, if your entire enterprise can be brought down by the insertion of 11 characters into a URL, your system may in fact not be sustainable. Rather than attack Sci-Hub and its users, “ASA” might ask why its vendor is so unable to prevent the complete demolition of its business model by a few key strokes. But they don’t. Which leads me to the next point.

The Edwards post goes way beyond the untrue claim that there is no other way to support a peer review system, and argues that ASA needs all that paywall money to pay for all the other stuff it does. That is, not only do we need to sell papers to pay for our journal operations (and Sage profits), we also need paywalls because:

ASA is a nonprofit, so whatever revenue we receive from our journals, beyond what it costs us to do the editorial and publications work, goes directly into providing professional and educational services to our members and other scholars in our discipline (whether they are members or not). … The revenue allows ASA to provide sociologists in the field competitive research grants, pre-doctoral scholarships, specialized career development, and new digital teaching resources among many other services. It is what allows us to work effectively with other social science associations to sustain and, hopefully, grow the flow of federal research dollars to the social sciences through NSF, NIH, and many others and to defend against elimination and cuts to federal support (e.g., statistical systems and ongoing surveys) so scholars can conduct research and then publish outstanding scholarship.

In other words, as David Mamet’s character Mickey Bergman once put it, “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

This means that finding the best model for getting sociological research to the most people with the least barriers is not as important as all the other stuff ASA does — even if the research is publicly funded. I don’t agree.

Better models

There are better ways. Contrary to popular misconceptions, we do not need to go to a system where individual researchers pay to publish their work, widening status inequalities among researchers. The basic design of the system to come is we cut out the for-profit publishers, and ask the universities and federal agencies that currently pay for research twice — once for the researchers, and once again for their published output — to agree to pay less in exchange for all of it to be open access. Instead, they pay into a central organization that administers publication funds to scholarly associations, which produce open-access research output. For a detailed proposal, read this white paper from K|N Consultants, “A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access Publishing and Archiving for Humanities and Social Sciences.” (Others are trying as well; check out the efforts of the American Anthropological Association.)

This should be easy — more access, accountability, and efficiency, for less — but it’s a difficult political problem, made all the more difficult by the dedicated efforts of those whose interests are threatened by the possibility of slicing out the profit (and other surplus) portions of the current paywall system. The math is there, but the will and the organizational efforts are lagging badly, especially in the leadership of ASA.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “For (not against) a better publishing model

  1. I will write again the same I wrote in the comment under the previous blog entry on this topic: the whole situation is completely different when you have to read dozens and dozens of papers from several articles, you live in developing country, you have newborn daughter and you earn officially 300$ per month. I cannot even fathom how anybody can say that by limiting access to the newest knowledge to the youngest researchers from the poorer countries, actually scientific progress is ensured.

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