The “Academic Spring” — Shallow Rhetoric Aimed at the Wrong Target 2012-04-18


“Recently, the term ‘academic spring’ has appeared in relation to statements from the Wellcome Trustand the Elsevier boycott started by mathematician Timothy Gowers, mainly in coverage in theGuardian, which seems to have become a cheerleader in the open access (OA) movement. The term ‘academic spring’ was apparently introduced by a librarian named Barbara Fister. The term borrows from the Arab Spring, a set of uprisings that started in 2010 during which thousands if not millions rose up against tyrannical regimes, risking and sometimes losing their lives in an attempt to create more representative governments... The ‘academic spring’ as envisioned by coverage in the Guardian and in Fister’s blog post is altogether different from the Arab Spring and, I would argue, is a term inappropriately and cynically borrowed. How can you cheapen the striving of an entire culture for representative government by equating that with complaints about paywalls? But there is a deeper problem with equating a boycott of publishers or a call for open access with a revolution against great and domineering powers — that is, by targeting publishers, academics are targeting the wrong power-players in the academic marketplace. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a more plausible candidate for the role of villain in this overcharged environment, a powerful group exploiting academics, taking taxpayer funded research for itself, and shifting risk from itself to those it ostensibly values. But it’s not publishers. It’s the universities themselves. Yesterday, I published a review of ‘The Economics Shaping Science.’It becomes clear from this carefully written book that one of the main economic transformations in science careers is publication — academics publish in order to turn information that has no inherent economic value for them (it is non-rival and non-excludable) into things that are rival and excludable, and therefore have economic value (namely, priority and prestige). Academics accomplish this transformation through the act of citable publication. Journal publishers create and maintain the venues that establish and record priority and lend prestige, including the third-party validation, the underlying coordination of peer-review, the maintenance and integration of platforms, the dissemination and longevity of materials, and so forth. This is the case no matter the underlying business model of the publisher. The ‘academic spring’ is meant to force publishers to stop erecting paywalls. As an alternative to readers paying, some funders and activists want journals to be funded largely by research dollars derived from the researchers’ own grants (and by extension, granting entities). These pre-paid articles are then freely available for anyone to read them. This makes little rational sense given the economics of science, which may explain why the Gowers petition has only received 9,000 signatures (as compared with the 30,000+ the initial PLoS petition garnered years ago), and why a recent similar petition in the US failed to even gain 1,000 signatures (but don’t tell the Guardian that — it doesn’t fit with their narrative): [1] Scientists sense there is little to be gained. Given the transformation accomplished by publishing (from economically valueless for the authors to economically valuable for the authors), the only economic value an author derives is from prestige and priority. (There is no economic value to scientists retaining copyright, either, kids.) Therefore, the best venue for publication (the best brand) and the first recorded finding are what the rational player in this market would seek. There is no clear reason to have unqualified readers who add nothing to either prestige or priority value. The citation advantage myth demonstrates this — OA publication adds to readers but not qualified readers, those who care about prestige and priority. Therefore, the value of OA is not increasing significantly, with stagnant prices demonstrating this. [2] Funding overlaps are obvious and problematic. Gold OA article publication fees are typically paid out of research funds. When OA publication was less common, this aggregate amount may have been trivial. Now, it is deep into millions of dollars, if not into the hundreds of millions, money flowing directly from research grants and awards to OA publishers. Subscription dollars, on the other hand, flowed from other budgets — department overhead, library acquisitions, and personal. By insisting on a system of research-dollar funded OA, academics are depleting their available grant funding to pay publishers. This is not completely rational. Instead, it is a looming Tragedy of the Commons around research funding. [3] The Pogo problem. Pogo’s most famous quote is, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’ Scholarly publishers are often academic centers or societies themselves. Depleting funds from these publishers in order to accomplish a dubious outcome (more readers who matter at best peripherally to prestige and priority) turns out to create self-inflicted wounds. Publishing enterprises tha



08/16/2012, 06:08

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Date tagged:

04/18/2012, 18:06

Date published:

04/15/2012, 20:14