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Research Reports as Advertisements: An Allegory

On Fri, 2 Mar 2007, Peter Banks wrote:

> On 3/1/07 7:58 PM, "Stevan Harnad" <harnad@ecs.soton.ac.uk> wrote:
>> The online age has given birth to a very profound conflict of 
>> interest between what is best for (1) the research journal 
>> publishing industry, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, 
>> what is best for (2) research, researchers, universities, 
>> research institutions, research funders, the vast research and 
>> development (R&D) industry, and the tax-paying public that 
>> funds the research...
>> ...Green OA mandates by research funders and institutions have been
>> vigorously opposed by some (not all) portions of the publishing
>> industry: these opponents have already succeeded in delaying the
>> adoption of Green OA mandates on a number of occasions.


> This "New-Yorker length" essay begins with a flawed premise: 
> that research publishing and research are opposed. This 
> certainly will come as news to the many senior researchers who 
> work as editors, editorial board members, and reviewers in 
> publishing.

When research funders propose, and researchers petition, to 
mandate OA self-archiving -- and publishers oppose it -- I think 
it's more than reasonable to call that opposition opposition.

> Using similar logic, one might assert that there is very 
> profound conflict of interest between what is best for (1) 
> patients in the United States, on the one hand, and, on the 
> other hand, what is best for (2) the health care industry, 
> including doctors, hospitals, health-care insurers, the vast 
> research and development (R&D) industry in pharmaceuticals and 
> medical devices.

No, there are some superficial economic and ethical similarities 
there, but it's the wrong analogy. A better analogy would be the 
one Larry Lessig described last year, about the online tax return 
system that California provided, and that tax-payers loved, until 
it was lobbied off line by the tax-consultant service industry:

     "Lawrence Lessig, Tax-Payer "ReadyReturn" and Research Access"

That analogy is still imperfect, although it captures some of the 
same flavor. I suspect that the case of peer-reviewed research 
publication is unique. Only a contrived, hypothetical example, 
verging on allegory, comes close enough:

Suppose that advertising services traditionally made their money 
from *selling* ads (to readers) on paper. Merchants advertising 
their products would reluctantly agree to the placement of an 
access-toll (collected by the advertising service from readers) 
between the ads for their products and their intended customers 
(for the products the merchant is selling -- the ones the ad is 
advertising), because that was the only way to cover paper 
production/distribution costs, and at least merchants didn't have 
to pay the advertising service for preparing their ads. 
(Merchants supply the raw copy, but the ad companies make it look 
professional, and then print, distribute, and collect the tolls 
for accessing it.)

Then the online medium comes along. Merchants still want some 
help in making their ads look professional, and they don't mind 
their ads continuing to be sold on paper, but they'd like them 
now to be free online, to maximize readers and thereby product 

So while the ads are still selling well enough on paper to cover 
the ad service's costs and provide a fair profit, the merchants 
put their ads online for free -- not the raw copy, but the 
version made to look professional by the ad service.

The ad services agree to individual merchants giving away the 
online version of their ads for free, but they oppose the 
merchants' association mandating that all merchants do it, saying 
it will destroy their (the ad service industry's) revenues and 
their ability to cover their costs.

The merchants' association says that as long as paper ad sales 
are still covering costs, there is no justification for opposing 
a mandate that merchants deposit their ads free online. Only if 
and when paper ad sales are no longer sustainable is there any 
cause for objection, and then the objection can be met quite 
simply by merchants paying the advertising services directly for 
their value-added contribution.

To make the analogy complete, it remains only to add that the 
*readers* of the adds are the merchants themselves: Let's say 
that they are selling their products to one another; hence the 
ads for their products are addressed to one another too.

That means that if and when the ads are no longer selling on 
paper (because the free online version is all that readers want 
and need), then the only thing the merchants association needs to 
do is to redirect the money saved (from no longer paying for the 
paper ads): The value added to the online ad by the ad service is 
now paid out of the collective savings from the access-tolls for 
the (now obsolete) paper ads.

Even the best of analogies, even contrived allegories like this, 
are not identities. So let me point out the three remaining flaws 
in this analogy before they are used as a counter-analogy. (This, 
of course, is the Achilles Heel of all arguments by analogy, and 
why they are never binding, either way -- but of course this 
applies to Peter Banks's original health-care analogy too!):

(1) In the case of research publishing, the value added by the 
"ad service" (the publisher), is peer review, not just "making 
the ad look professional" (but the peers review for free; the 
publisher just manages the process).

(2) In the case of peer-reviewed publishing, the "ad" is the 
research paper itself: there is no other product it is trying to 
promote and sell. Getting the "ad" read by as many users as 
possible is the goal, and getting its findings used, applied, 
built upon and cited is the reward, if the research is found 
useful and important enough.

(3) Merchants, unlike researchers, see quite clearly the relation 
between free consumer access to their ads, and the benefits to 
the uptake of their products, hence it is unrealistic in the 
extreme that merchants would ever need to be "mandated" to make 
their advertisements free online, rather than toll-based. 
Researchers are a different breed...

     "The Geeks and the Irrational"

> The fact is that there are terrible "market dysfunctions" in US 
> health care: about 47 million people have no health insurance 
> at all, and we tolerate a system in which the young and healthy 
> are allowed to opt out, putting the old and infirm at 
> considerable medical and financial risk. Meanwhile, healthcare 
> insurers and pharmaceutical firms profit handsomely.

All true. And there's world hunger too, injustice, and global 

But all we're trying to do here is to get researchers' adverts 
freely accessible online, at long last...

> Were we to take the approach of open access advocates, the 
> solution would be simple: government mandated single payer 
> systems. However--although they want universal care are willing 
> to pay more in taxes for it--most Americans seemingly do not 
> wish to rely solely on the government but would prefer some 
> private-public system that preserves the strengths of the 
> current system in choice, innovation, and quality and yet 
> extends coverage and makes it more fair and equitable.

Allow me to decline going further into the details of the 
substantial *disanalogy* between health care economics/inequities 
and the simple case of making researchers' adverts accessible to 
all their potential users, toll-free. The incongruities between 
the two cases are too gaping to be ignored.

But if you'd care to argue specifically in terms of the logic and 
pragmatics of researchers self-archiving their peer-reviewed 
research while subscriptions are still paying all publication 
costs, I'll be happy to repeat what I've been chirping for 13+ 
years now (though, to mix metaphors, me fingers is getting awful 
sore trying to get researchers to move theirs, at long last):


> In other words, the public rejects the kind of simplistic
> patients-vs-the medical industry dichotomy that open access
> advocates put forth with regard to publishing.

As far as I know, OA advocates are just trying to get 
researchers' ads online free, not to overturn capitalism...


> The scholarly publishing system IS in need of evolution--and it
> is, in fact, evolving rapidly. The best thing OA advocates could
> do to help guide the evolution is cease this endless and tiresome
> speech-making and declaration-writing and sit down with
> publishers and figure out a better system.

But Peter, unlike health care reform, the tussle here is not 
between patients and their health-care providers, it is between 
the research community and itself, which includes both the 
providers and the users of the adverts -- as well as the funders 
and employers of the merchants and their product! And the only 
issue is making their ads free online.

Hence it is not about "reforming the advertising industry." The 
advertising industry may or may not eventually have to adapt and 
reform. What is at issue here is self-help: Research funders and 
employers mandating that researchers make their ads free online.

Until and unless subscription tolls stop paying for the value 
added to those ads (by peer review), the advertising service 
industry is out of the loop on the decision by research funders 
and employers to make the research they fund freely accessible 

If and when the free accessibility online ever does make 
subscriptions unsustainable as a way of paying for the value 
added by managing the peer review service, the (institutional) 
subscription savings will be more than enough to pay for the 
service directly, as a service fee, instead of as now, as 


But that is hypothetical economics, whereas self-archiving 
mandates are reachable right now ('sine hypotheses fingere'), by 
and for the research community itself; the publishing service 
industry has absolutely nothing to say in that decision.

> (If only OA proponents would pour as much passion into helping 
> to fix the health care system as they do into upending 
> publishing. The current US health care system is by an order of 
> magnitude a greater threat to health than is, say, lack of 
> public access to Brain Research.)

You know, I agree with you, insofar as OA proponents trying to 
upend the publishing system is concerned. That is misdirected 
effort (Gold Fever) and it is getting us nowhere fast, insofar as 
actually generating OA is concerned. That is why I stalwartly 
recommend the Green OA movement instead, ignoring all matters 
pertaining to publishing and publishing reform.

OA is a direct benefit to research, and is directly reachable, 
right now, by the research community (by mandating 
self-archiving, now). The rest will take care of itself quite 
naturally, the publishing community adapting to what is obviously 
optimal and inevitable for research, if and when it ever needs 
to. Right now, there's nothing the publishing industry needs to 
do: what needs more industry is researchers' keystrokes.

And, to dispatch another canard much touted by some blinkered OA 
zealots: The primary rationale for OA is researcher access to 
research reported by and for researchers, not "public access" 
(though that too, of course, comes with the OA territory):

The burning public interest in accessing health-related research 
does not scale to the vast majority of the 2.5 million esoteric 
articles scholars and scientists publish annually for their 
fellow specialists. Public interest is in getting all that 
research to all of its intended users, namely, researchers (and 
not just those who can afford toll-access to the ads) so they can 
build upon it, and generate eventual applications, to the benefit 
of the public that funds it.

     Strengthening the US Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA)

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum