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January 14th, 2014

The evidence fails to justify publishers’ demand for longer embargo periods on publicly-funded research.


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

January 14th, 2014

The evidence fails to justify publishers’ demand for longer embargo periods on publicly-funded research.


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

peter-suber-webDue to disciplinary differences in the “half-life” or relative demand of a scholarly article, some publishers are looking to enact longer embargo periods before an article can be made openly available on archives and repositories, in order to protect against profit losses. Peter Suber finds there is insubstantial evidence to suggest embargo length affects profit margin. Furthermore, the premise that public policies should maximize publisher revenue before maximizing public access to publicly-funded research is unfounded and should equally be rejected. 

Phil Davis has shown that the half-life of research articles differs from field to field. The half-life of an article here is “the median age of articles downloaded from a publisher’s website.” See his study, Journal Usage Half-Life [pdf], November 25, 2013. The study was funded by the Professional & Scholarly Publishing (PSP) division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and posted to its web site.

[J]ust 3% of journals had half-lives shorter than 12-months. While journal usage half-lives were typically shorter for journals in the Health Sciences (median half-life: 25-36 months), they were considerably longer for journals in the Humanities, Physics and Mathematics (median half-life: 49-60 months). Nearly 17%…of all journals had usage half-lives exceeding six years.

I don’t think anyone is surprised by these results. I don’t mean that the results are trivial. I mean that most of us suspected this was the case before we had the data. For example, in an article from January 2004, I said that “demand for journal articles in the humanities drops off more slowly after publication than demand for articles in the STM fields….” This was a hunch, but it seemed right and I wasn’t the only one who had a similar hunch.

public entrance
Image credit: Elliott Brown (CC-BY)

I have no reason to think that Davis’ study is methodologically flawed. In that sense, I’m grateful for the data to support what until now has been a hunch or conjecture. Unfortunately the data are not being carefully used by publishers who want to lengthen the permissible embargoes in federal OA policies. Note that Davis himself does not make the careless arguments I’m about to describe.

There are two problems in arguing that the Davis study somehow entails that OA policies should permit longer embargoes — longer embargoes in general or longer embargoes in fields with longer article half-lives.

1. The first problem is that the Davis data doesn’t show that short embargoes cause cancellations. This is a larger problem than it may appear to be. Publishers have been claiming for years that short embargoes cause cancellations, but there is no evidence to support the claim.

After a recent (September 2013) and extensive review of the literature, the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills concluded that “there is no available evidence base to indicate that short or even zero embargoes cause cancellation of subscriptions” (Paragraph 44), and “We note the absence of evidence that short embargo periods harm subscription publishers” (Paragraph 49).

Publishers don’t even have the evidence in their private books — or if they do, they’ve been unwilling to produce it when it would actually help them modify federal OA policy. When asked for such evidence at three Congressional hearings in 2008, 2010, and 2012, they were unable to cite any. Unfortunately for them, the new Davis data is on a different question and will not fill this need.

For more on the continuing failure to support this publisher hunch, see my book (Open Access, MIT Press, 2012) at pp. 152 and 159, and the updates and supplements for p. 152. (The book is itself OA.)

2. But the second problem is larger and more important than the first. Suppose we had good data showing that short embargoes caused cancellations, or that a uniform embargo across fields caused more cancellations in the fields with longer article half-lives. It still would not follow that policies should permit longer embargoes. To get to that conclusion we’d have to add premises. These premises are often assumed, but they are remarkably weak once made explicit for examination.

We’d have to add the premise that public policies should maximize publisher revenue before maximizing public access to publicly-funded research. Or we’d have to add the premise that policies should put publisher interests ahead of researcher interests. I reject these premises. Research funding agencies, especially public funding agencies, ought to reject them as well.

I’d elaborate here, but I’ve made the argument many times before, for example, in this September 2012 article on the RCUK policy:

If rising levels of green OA [or shorter embargoes] do start to cause cancellations…then we can decide what to do about it. We can act in light of the evidence, whatever it turns out to be. We can weigh the demonstrable degree of harm to publishers against the demonstrable degree of benefit to research, researchers, research institutions, and taxpayers….[W]e needn’t assume without discussion that even evidence of harm to subscription publishers would justify compromising the public interest in public access to publicly-funded research. Policy-makers must take seriously the argument that green OA mandates [with short embargoes] could be justified even if they do eventually cause cancellations. The case for this ‘even if’ argument can be long or short. It’s essentially the argument for OA itself….[I]t’s also the argument that public agencies should put the public interest ahead of private interests….But in either form, the argument is essential to avoid the mistake of letting public agencies make insurance for publishers a higher priority than access to publicly-funded research.

Or in this article from March 2013 on US policy:

[T]he White House should understand that publisher requests for embargoes, and especially requests to lengthen embargoes, are requests to put private interests ahead of the public interest. Even evidence that private interests would benefit from that imbalance should not suffice to bend public policy towards them….[A]ny embargo period is a compromise with the public interest. Sometimes compromise is necessary to get a policy adopted. But even when compromise is politically necessary, the public interest still lies in immediate access, and all the covered funding agencies are still mission-bound to disburse public money in the public interest. Public policy-makers should try to identify and achieve the public interest, even when it conflicts with a well-funded private interest. It’s understandable to compromise when they can’t muster the votes; but it’s not understandable to change the goal from public leadership to private mediation. Moreover, even when embargoes are a necessary compromise to get a policy adopted, we should always try to shorten embargoes over time for the same reason that we should always try to get closer to achieving the public interest. The NIH policy is exemplary is most respects, but it permits excessive embargoes. That’s one reason why FRPAA and FASTR are so welcome. They would shorten it. Finally, even if short embargoes eventually trigger cancellations of non-OA journals, and publishers can provide evidence (which so far they have not done), strong OA policies may still be justified, and for two reasons. First, researchers and taxpayers will still have an interest in the shortest possible embargoes. Second, there are first-rate, peer-reviewed OA journals not threatened in the slightest by strong OA policies. It’s not as if high-quality publishing per se requires subscription revenue or embargoes to protect that revenue.

The February 2013 directive from the Obama White House requires about two dozen federal funding agencies to adopt green OA mandates. It asks them to use a default 12-month embargo, and to allow stakeholders to present evidence that the embargo should be longer or shorter. By contrast, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), now before both houses of Congress, caps embargoes at 6-months in every field. FASTR has bipartisan support in each chamber, and its supporters (including me) continue to work for its passage. The Obama directive does not moot FASTR in the slightest, in part because we need legislation to make an exective action permanent, and in part because FASTR is stronger than the Obama directive, for example, on embargoes and open licensing.

This situation creates an independent reason why federal agencies complying with the Obama directive should not permit longer embargoes. If they do, and if FASTR then passes, then they’ll simply have to revise their policies and shorten their embargoes. If agencies write policies at the weak end of what the White House allows, and if FASTR passes, then agencies will have to strengthen their policies, regardless of the time they will have spent coordinating with other agencies and consulting with stakeholders. Agencies could save time, and reduce friction in the long run, by writing for FASTR in the first place.

I’m speaking as an individual, not for Harvard. But Harvard has publicly endorsed a similar position. See Harvard’s January 2012 submission to the White House consultation on federal OA policy:

[I]f publishers believe that short embargo periods would harm them, they should release data showing it. Researchers, research institutions, and taxpayers cannot be expected to prove the negative, or to prove the harmlessness of short embargoes. Until there is data to show harm, we must act in the public interest and provide early or immediate public access to publicly funded research. If publishers provide data showing substantive harm [from short embargoes], then it may become appropriate to consider what kind of compromise with the public interest might be justified.

Note that the final sentence does not say, “If publishers provide data showing substantive harm [from short embargoes], then public policy should permit longer embargoes.”

This piece originally appeared on Peter Suber’s Google+ page and is reposted with the author’s permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Peter Suber is the Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center, Senior Researcher at SPARC, and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College. His latest book is Open Access (MIT Press, 2012) and he blogs at Google Plus. For more details, see his home page.

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Posted In: Academic publishing | Open Access