Apotheosis of cynicism and deceit from scholarly publishers

The Association of American Publishers, who lobby on behalf of most for-profit and society scholarly publishers, have long opposed moves to make the scientific literature more readily available to the public. But, as open access publishing has gained traction and funders increasingly demand free access to the work they fund, the AAP’s defense of the status quo has descended to new depths. Perhaps the most egregious is a letter sent last week to the California Assembly opposing AB609, which would provide the public with access to state funded research.

Here are their points:

State Universities Could be Faced with Open Access Publishing Charges Estimated at More Than $1 Million Annually

While AB 609 does not require authors to publish in author-funded open access journals, many journal publishers charge an article publishing fee to researchers to cover the cost to the publishers for making the journal articles freely available online. These costs could be substantial and are fundamentally unknowable, but the author of AB 609 has said that they may be similar to those in  the implementation of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy, upon which AB 609 has been modeled. In a congressional hearing on open access in 2008, the director of NIH indicated that the agency spends $100 million a year for page fees and open access charges. Therefore, one might estimate that California could spend $1.1 million each year on these charges, as California’s research budget is 1 % of that of NIH ($332 million vs. $30 billion). This rough estimate is likely an underestimate, as it only accounts for publishing charges and not for infrastructure, compliance, or the variation in open access charges.

Do you follow the publishers’ argument here?  Any time an author voluntarily chooses to publish in an open access journal, even if they are under no legislative mandate or pressure to do so, the publishers want those costs to count against any legislation that seeks to improve public access. This is pure balderdash.

And note how they compute this “cost”. They cite a quote from former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni who estimated that in 2008 the NIH spent $100 million on page fees and open access charges. But Zerhouni said this in 2008 as the NIH Public Access Policy was being introduced – thus these costs had were not in any way the result of the policy – they arose from authors choosing on their own how to publish their work.  And that $100 million includes page fees – charges leveed by subscription publishers on authors in addition to the subscription fees they charge libraries for access to their content. I know the open access industry very well, and revenues in 2008 were nowhere  near $100m for the whole industry, let alone from NIH authors. I’d bet, at most, total revenue was $20m, with max $10m from the NIH (and I’m sure this is an overestimate). So the vast majority of charges they are citing were actually payments in page charges to AAP publishers!

This is a completely preposterous and deceitful argument – one they undoubtedly know is wrong in both logic and detail – and demonstrates that they are willing to outright lie to achieve their legislative aims.

Savings to State Universities from Cancelled Journal Subscriptions Are Unlikely

There are no countervailing savings from the policies in AS 609 to offset the signifioant costs entailed. State universities would still need to maintain a large portion of their budgets for journal subscriptions, as students and researchers would oontinue to need to access research articles that are written by researchers from outside of California and not subject to the bill’s provisions, Where some smaller journals may be cancelled or go out of business, and others may change to an author-pays open access business model, there will be many that continue as subscription journals. In fact, some analysts have suggested that costs for subscriptions may actually increase, as publishers will still need to recoup their investments in publication from a smaller subscription base.

CA AB 609 Will Undermine Investments in the Peer Review Process that Ensures the Quality and Integrity of Scientific Research, Potentially Requiring California to Make Those Investments Itself

The peer review process ensures that research articles are rigorously reviewed by experts in specialized fields before they are published – in effect, the “checks and balances” of good science. Publishers invest in supporting the peer review process that vets the validity and significance of authors’ research findings by identifying appropriate reviewers, maintaining content management systems, providing enhanced digital coding and graphic design, disseminating the articles, enhancing the discoverability of article content and preserving the scholarly record. AB 609 would reduce publishers’ ability to continue those investments, and potentially transfer those costs to the California research budget.

So let’s put these two things together. The bill will not save California any money because libraries will not cancel any subscriptions, but will undermine publishers’ ability to carry out peer review because they will lose revenue from canceled subscriptions. Huh? They can not have it both ways. Either publisher revenues will drop OR California will save no money. These can not both be true at the same time.  Even if you buy their argument that the cancellation of subscriptions will undermine peer review, in order for this to happen, subscriptions would have to be cut, which would save California money.

I also love this ridiculous line:

AB 609 would reduce publishers’ ability to continue those investments, and potentially transfer those costs to the California research budget.

Note the complete logical fallacy contained in this one sentence. They are arguing that they need subscription revenue from California in order to invest in peer review, but if California cuts off these subscriptions then California is going to have to cover these costs themselves. So let me see if I get this. California is already paying for something, but if they stop paying for it, they’re going to have to pay for it themselves. My brain is going to explode.

There is no other explanation for this kind of lunacy other than the publishers think that they can kill this bill and others like it by making legislators think it will cost them money if it passes. But since this is manifestly false, they have to go through Olympic-level logical gymnastics in order to claim it is true. The publishers are lying, and they are clearly hoping that by lying in such a confusing way,  legislators – few of whom are familiar with the intricacies of scientific publishing – will believe what they’re being told.

CA AS 609 Will Negatively Impact California Jobs

California ranks second in the country for periodical and journal publishing jobs, employing approximately 17,000 people with a payroll of more than $250 million. By requiring surrender of their value-added, peer reviewed scientific journal articles within 12 months of publication, AS 609 will erode the financial sustainability of not-far-profit and commercial publishers, ultimately putting jobs at risk. Government mandates that make journal articles available free will likely have the same effect on the publishing industry as experienced by many newspapers when they chose to give their content away for free. Newspapers facing bankruptcy had to start charging for online access, as It Is unlikely that someone will subscribe to a newspaper (or journal) when they can obtain the articles for free online.

What a crock of shit. First of all, in order to make it sound like California jobs are at risk, the publishers lump journal publishing together with periodical publishing. I would hasten to bet that virtually all of the 17,000 jobs they cite are in the periodicals industry, and have absolutely nothing to do with scholarly publishing. In fact, there is relatively little activity in scholarly publishing in California – most journals are based in Boston, NY or Washington. And I suspect the biggest employer in the scholarly publishing industry is PLOS – who have >100 people working full time in their San Francisco office, as well as a larger pool of California-based freelancers and other contractors. Plus California is a hotbed for growth in open access publishing – including hot new startups like PeerJ.

And it is equally cynical to use the analogy of newspapers for the effect this bill would have on scholarly publishers. The AAP knows full well that unlike with newspapers, there is a perfectly viable alternative business model – open access – which PLOS, BMC and others have proven is both viable and profitable. They know that if subscriptions go away, scholarly publishing will not go away. But the obscene profits made by the AAP’s members will. And that is something they are willing to lie through their teeth to achieve.

AB 609 Is Unnecessary Because Publishers Are Devoted to Providing Access to Research and Invest in the Dissemination of Research in a Variety of Ways

Publishers provide access to published research articles through a variety of methods, including subscriptions, article rental and free-to-reader “open access” articles that are subsidized by author fees or sponsorships, Publishers have also voluntarily created programs that provide access to research literature for communities that have been previously underserved through outreach programs, such as patientlNFORM, the Emergency Access Initiative and Research4Life, as well as programs fOr” public libraries, journalists and high schools. Publishers have also worked with research funders, including government agencies and private foundations, for collaborative solutions to advance access to articles that report or analyze funded research. These collaborative, flexible partnerships are the rIght way to advance access while ensuring the sustainability of a well-functioning scholarly system. AS 609 takes us in an opposite direction and would contribute to fragmentation, duplication and dilution of efforts to build an infrastructure that is interoperable and efficient.

Yeah, that’s right. The AAP’s members are devoted to providing access to research. They are so devoted to it that they spent the first two pages of this letter arguing that providing access to the public would destroy their industry and take thousands of California jobs with them. The only reason that AAP members have done anything to make the literature available to anyone is that they know that their practices are deeply unpopular with the public, and so they create bogus access initiatives that they think will make them look like they’re trying. But this letter proves otherwise.

The only thing the AAP is devoted to is preserving the status quo – and lying to achieve their goal.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted May 22, 2013 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Can you blame the publishers? Captive market, so in essence a monopoly, charge pretty much what you like (in the mid 1990s for-profit sector subscription hikes were 25-40% per year, so nothing new). Glowing reports in the financial pages, because one part of the company is guaranteed “very healthy returns”. You bet.
    As ever, do not depend on others, we need to do it ourselves.
    Great post!

  2. Posted May 22, 2013 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    See, legacy publishers, this is what we’re talking about when we call you enemies of science. It’s all very well for you go bleating that “Branding academic publishers ‘enemies of science’ is offensive”, but if you want us to stop describing you in such terms, it’s terribly simple what you have to do: stop being enemies of science. Seriously. Just stop it. It’s getting embarrassing.

  3. Vivian Siegel
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I need to pipe in. First, it wasn’t free online access that hurt the newspaper industry, even as they now use access charges to try to stem the bleeding. It was craiglist that took away classified advertising that hurt the newspaper industry. Second, what about the amount of money (taxpayer money if it’s coming from grants or public university coffers) spend on marketing subscriptions? Last I looked, that was about 30% of the typical for profit publisher’s budget. Think of how much “investment in peer review” that could fund!

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