Why aren’t we agitating for open-access groceries? | Scientist Sees Squirrel
lterrat's bookmarks 2017-02-21
"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."