Paywalls are not immoral (so you don’t have to use them)

Since the 2012 election I have had little cause to defend Science from the forces of Good, but a recent Guardian blogpost by Mike Taylor has roused me from the state of suspended animation in which I have resided these past months. The article is titled “Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral” and it has generated some kerfuffle on Twitter.

Naturally there is a concern that scientists, reading this, will be confused. “Immoral” means that, as a servant of Hell, you have to do it; right? Well, never fear. Closed-access publishing can be suboptimal for various reasons, but it’s definitely not immoral. Here are a few reasons why this “Open Access = Morality” line is bunk:

  1. Morality vs ethics. Since “publish in open access journals” is a pretty specific rule, we are actually talking about ethics not morals here. Nitpicking but I’m starting with the small stuff, and it builds.
  2. Science is not built on morals. Rather it is built on a system of incentives. For disclosing your secrets, you get reputation. An immoral person can be a good scientist. People with different moral codes can be equally good scientists. There is no universal moral code for scientists (apart from your secret oath to Bring About the Supremacy of Hell and the Glorification of Lucifer; but no public code). There are indeed specific ethical principles that we have worked out, but Open Access is far from a universal one at this point.
  3. One of the fairly core ethical principles of science is academic freedom. Among other things, this means that you do not have to feel bad about certain things just because some other scientist decided it’s bad. Choosing the manner and form in which to publish, including the journal (absent hard guidelines – see next point), is one aspect of this freedom.
  4. Another ethical principle is compliance with funder guidelines. If your funder says you should use Open Access, you must use it or risk censure & future loss of funding. But that is distinct from the question of which journal to use when there are no such guidelines. Advocating change at the funder level seems a bit more significant and productive than guilt-tripping your more impressionable colleagues, no?
  5. There may be valid non-selfish reasons to choose a non-OA journal. The usual rationale for OA is that it will reach more readers (the common example is a parent in the developing world, with a sick child, who presumably wants to search the literature to find a slow-acting and painful toxin in order to wreak terrible revenge on whoever sneezed on the kid). However, it is entirely possible that a non-OA journal will reach more of the readers that you are interested in (e.g. the closed-access Journal of Vengeance, which has a forbidding paywall but a highly dedicated readership). There may also be specific disadvantages to OA (see point #9 below). Reaching the largest number of hypothetical penniless lay readers in the period before copyright expires is not necessarily the prime goal of everyone’s science.
  6. That said, there also is no reason to be censured as a scientist because you have pursued your self-interest. I have yet to find one single scientist who can be held up as a paragon of pure altruism. And generally the more selfless scientists that I know are also the more tolerant, and the less likely to start moralizing at other people for not lining up behind their pet issue. Scientific ethics are about aligning the public interest with individual scientists’ self-interest. That’s why we have publication, patents, etc. They’re all designed to align self-interest with public-interest. It’s ridiculous and Victorian to pretend, at this point, as if everyone is motivated purely by the same universally-held ideal of selfless advancement of knowledge. They’re not. People are coaxed into good behavior by the rules, including those people who are shouting loudest about the immorality of non-OA.
  7. Usually at this point the OA zealots start talking about dissemination, outreach, etc, as though the sticker price of your journal is the only way to evaluate these things. It’s not. Don’t be fooled. Lucifer will, indeed, judge you ultimately on the extent to which you have managed to transform the world into a mirror image of Hell, but this does not translate directly to the number of people you’ve managed to horrify by exposing them to graphic images of mouse torture (or whatever it is your lab does). If only life were that simple!
  8. You will hear a lot of stuff about responsibility to the taxpayer. It does indeed seem depressing to lock up all that intellectual property so that readers get gouged. Surely the taxpayer should own what they paid for. But there’s no free lunch and publishers gonna get paid somehow. Author-pays models do not come without costs: typically they mean less funds to do actual research. There may be other indirect costs to choosing an OA journal, such as missed opportunity (see next point). The publishers do not own the ideas in the paper and anyone is free to reproduce them elsewhere e.g. in a book (which is where most people will be learning them from in 5 years time). Beware of trite oversimplifications in these arguments about obligations to the taxpayer. There is certainly an urgent responsibility to deliver value, but you must decide yourself the specifics of that responsibility in your case, and whether committing to OA as an individual is meeting it.
  9. There are certainly advantages to OA, but there are disadvantages as well. The disadvantages include the fee (all OA publishers claim to offer hardship waivers, this is true to varying extents but you will incur risk and delays in applying for it), the delay (some OA journals are slower to review), the narrower choice of journals, the cost to your reputation of publishing in those journals, and so on. The benefits include automatic indexing of machine-readable papers, wider potential readership, copyright, remixability, and so on. There are other concerns, like co-authors. The relative importance of these various issues probably depends a lot on you and your field. Obviously, you will need to carefully balance all of this in deciding where to publish. OA zealots like to shoot down all these issues (often in straw-man form) and to insist that their moral calculus is valid for everybody, but be extremely skeptical of this kind of moral certitude. On the whole, I personally find that OA is worth it, and have published >50% of my stuff in OA journals (more recently), but there are a lot of factors to weigh.
  10. You will hear many absolutes bandied around, like “the primary product of the research is the paper” (it’s not: it’s also the knowledge, the code, the reagents, the downstream benefits, the training of acolytes, the killer robots you built, etc) or “scientists have an absolute responsibility to blah blah blah”. Ask yourself whether science really operates this way – as a top-down system of morality whereby individual scientists work in unison due to their strong consciences – or whether it is, in fact, an emergent phenomenon arising from a host of selfish agents, acting according to incentives that are designed to encourage disclosure and other outcomes that are in the public Satanic interest? Ask yourself if science really is a moral monolith? Or is it a bit more of a satanic salad bowl?
  11. With all this said, I actually do strongly favor making OA a condition of public funds; but it’s very important to appreciate the distinction between arguing for something like this as a public good (because it will benefit everyone on the whole), as opposed to claiming that it’s a universal moral principle which every single person should already be following anyway (otherwise they’re selfish cowards). The latter is far more narrow & subjective an argument; the former is far more powerful. Really, as scientists we are much better off trying to argue objectively. Attacking our colleagues’ morals is kind of dumb, and will not persuade many people. A rant about morality is generally a sign that someone has run out of clearer arguments. Let’s try and stick to the high ground (by which I do not mean the pulpit). We should be arguing for the collective outcome – not attacking individual choices.
  12. When all is said and done, OA is probably not as revolutionary as the quiet practice of putting preprints online, and one wonders if all this moral fuss is a bit of a distraction.
  13. Addendum: I’d like to make it clear that in this post I’m not trying to attack the OA “zealots”. They’ve all done great things for Open Access (and thus for science), and they are all worthy Satanists (even though some of them pretend to not be) and Colleagues in Damnation. Nor am I attacking OA advocacy in general (I am a pretty strong OA fan myself). It may be a subtle distinction, but I am trying to criticize a particular aspect of the tone of OA discussions, where differences between publishers’ business models are exaggerated until they become melodramatic Morality Plays, and failure to sacrifice one’s career (or other considerations) on the altar of OA is described as a personal failing. Quit it! Us evil scientists should pull together! Let us play nice, otherwise the media will start asking questions about Evolution again.

3 comments on “Paywalls are not immoral (so you don’t have to use them)

  1. Number 12 is the key point. Being in the computer science field, where we routinely post ALL of our papers online, I am constantly mystified by all the foaming at the mouth that goes on in the older sciences regarding paywalls. Almost every journal you would ever want to publish in allows you to engage in “self-archiving” by posting a pdf copy on your personal academic web site or a departmental web site. If you are not sure what your publisher allows, go search the “sherpa/romeo” database on publisher copyright polices and self-archiving. For example, the journal Science gets a green rating, meaning you can post a preprint (during reviewing) and postprint (final draft sent to the publisher). Nature, on the other hand, is rated yellow… you can still post a preprint and a postprint, but have to include a DOI and pointer to the publisher’s version with the postprint. In my field, where we typeset our own papers with LaTeX, the postprint is basically indistinguishable from the publisher’s version, just sans headers and footers. Frankly, we all wish the old sciences would stop whining. The only reason your paper is not available online is because you haven’t self-archived a pdf copy on your web site, where Google can pick it up. The ball is completely in your court.

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