Pubishers Speak Up

The New York Times (via CNET) reports on how some publishers have responded to the introduction of the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006. The gist of it?

Scholarly publishing has never been a big business. But it could take a financial hit if a proposed federal law is enacted, opening taxpayer-financed research to the public, according to some critics in academic institutions.

Never been a big business?! Don’t tell Elsevier shareholders.

There are two arguments in this article made against the bill from representatives of scholarly societies, for whom publishing isn’t a big business but is the activity that helps pay their bills and provide membership perks; they have good, honest reasons to be concerned that they will lose the income they have used for their societies. Though in this article, the arguement is framed a little differently: subscriptions may drop off and that will make it harder to sell ads because they can’t claim as many readers will see the ads. (Advertising? Is that where the money comes from? Who knew?) The other is a little more contentious.

Scientific data is easily misinterpreted, said Joann Boughman, executive vice president of the American Society of Human Genetics, publisher of The American Journal of Human Genetics. “Consumers themselves are saying, ‘We have the right to know these things as quickly as we can.’ That is not incorrect. However, wherever there is a benefit, there is a risk associated with it.”

So, make libraries pay for the subscriptions and make them available to a limited audience so the gullible public won’t read and misinterpret results. Because that would be bad for them. Right.

I always thought the argument that ordinary folks will benefit by being able to read research results a little dubious; it’s not that they will benefit by reading them, because for the most part they won’t, but that they will benefit because scientists will have greater access to them. And that public good is why we fund their research in the first place.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

2 thoughts on “Pubishers Speak Up”

  1. Peter Suber (not surprisingly) has the best response to the 2nd argument that I’ve seen:

    I would distinguish the language of the sponsoring Senators from the language of the bill itself. The Senators may put researchers and lay readers on a par but there’s nothing in the substantive provisions of the bill to support or require that emphasis. The problem is not with the bill but with some ways of pitching the bill…The bill really will make publicly-funded research accessible to the taxpayers who paid for it, whether they are professional researchers or lay readers, and this really will benefit lay readers, whether these benefits are primary or secondary. It’s natural, even irresistible, for an elected legislator introducing a new bill to point to every benefit for every constituent. If we had to choose, I’d rather see sponsors of good OA legislation be re-elected than to fine-tune their rhetoric in order to disarm every publisher objection…

  2. Thanks for pointing that out. I think clearly the bill is a Good Idea and that the benefits are pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about the value of public support for basic science research. But I was surprised by this publisher’s argument. Follow that logic, and we’d better shut down PubMed, quick. People without credentials might try to read up on their own diseases. The horror, the horror.

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