Monday, May 08, 2006

The Insider's Argument against Open Access

Open Access. Here comes the public attack against the bi-partisan Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, which would require 11 government agencies to publish online any articles that contained research financed with federal grants. See Sara Ivry, Some Publishers of Scholarly Journals Dislike Bill to Require Online Access to Articles, New York Times, 5/8/06.

What is particularly galling is one of the two publisher responses to the taxpayer access argument for open access. The taxpayer argument is simple: we paid for it, we should get to read it without paying again. Publishers have two responses: (1) the economic argument and (2) the elitist argument.

The economic argument holds that taxpayers do not pay for all of the valuable inputs into a publicly-funded journal article, and open access will destroy publisher motivation to add value.

The elitist argument holds that taxpayers cannot be trusted with open access because they might harm themselves by misreading or misunderstanding an article written by specialists for specialists. In the case of biomedical research, the argument goes, open access could lead non-specialist members of the public to self-treat, to fail to seek medical attention, and/or to disobey doctor's orders.

Let's just focus on the elitist argument for a moment. How would that argument fly with respect to other kinds of government expenditure? Voters should not have access to information about how the war in Iraq is going because they're likely to misunderstand how complex modern warfare is? Voters should not have access to hurricaine readiness preparations in New Orleans because meteorology is a complex business? These arguments are laughable on their face. Why doesn't the elitist argument against open government get the same response when it comes to science? The different treatment arises out of fundamental differences between the respective cultures of law and science, differences nicely analyzed in Steven Goldberg's 1994 book, Culture Clash: Law and Science in America (NYU Press). The culture of science has been buffered in some respects from our more general information policy in the U.S.

But the Internet is forcing science to confront that policy now, and that policy is rooted in the First Amendment. In the United States, we begin with a premise of democratic access to information. Arguments by elites that the American voter "can't handle the truth" run afoul of our deepest commitments. While it is important to recognize that transmission of information does not equate with transmission of knowledge, to presume that open access to scholarly information never amounts to transmission of knowledge to members of the general public is offensive to our core beliefs.

Members of Congress and their respective staffs should treat the elitist argument as constitutionally suspect and not waste any time on it as the debate on this important initiative moves forward.


Anonymous said...

You are missing the point. The elitist argument is fallacious because it fails to recognize that the general public has various levels of competency. Retired Nobel laureates, for example, do not have the same competency as high school drop outs generally. (However, there may be some high school drop outs who have the required competency, as in Good Will Hunting.) The elitist argument is a bad argument because there are members of the public who can benefit from access to technical material. Such people should have access to the research they paid for through their taxes.

Michael W. Carroll said...

I agree. Members of the public will have different levels of interest in, and different abilities to use, open access research articles. This is what I meant by the differences between transmission of information and transmission of knowledge.

Access to information becomes access to knowledge when one is equipped to make use of the information.

The First Amendment principle is a more general statement of the argument in the comment. Information rationing is bad policy because it necessarily will exclude access by members of the public who can put information to productive use, as researchers, as citizens, as students, etc. Information rationing should be permitted only when the government has a compelling interest in limiting access - such as an interest in national security.

My point here is that the elitist argument fails to supply such a compelling interest.

Anonymous said...

not everyone with personal or professional interest in scientific subjects works in an academic or research institute that has access to the products of the likes of Elsevier. I work in a major research library (outside the US) but its a library which does not have a focus on STM. So despite my background and interest in things STM, I have no access to much of the literature - whether it be from the US, or from the strong scientific (and government-funded) community in my country. Public libraries certainly don't provide access to expensive subscription services in most cases, particularly STM but even in the social sciences and humanities. If this bill succeeds, with this country's current propensity to follow wherever the US leads, I can see things getting better for those of use pursuing life-long education and awareness.

burlapwax said...

Certainly, the elitist argument is a total fallacy. A parallel argument would be that public libraries should not offer databases of scholarly research, or indeed books of scholarly quality, because the users of a public library are ill-equipped to handle the information. Such an over-generalization would not be made, of course, because databases and books are paid off by the libraries. In the case of a public library, this payment is partially in taxpayer dollars, making the public and the government pay twice for the same information. In essence, both of these arguments boil down to the economic.

Such an economic argument may indeed be valid, if proven that publication costs are not supported by the government expenditure in question.

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