Elsevier CEO on the Public Library of Science
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
February 6, 2002
by Peter SuberIn the February issue of _Information Today_, Dick Kaser interviews Elsevier CEO Derk Haank on his response to the Public Library of Science (PLoS). Quoting Haank: "Elsevier...[is] much closer to a PLoS initiative than anybody believes, because we are working toward the same end."
What Haank means is that Elsevier wants university researchers to have free online access to all the journals they need for their research. What he doesn't mention is that he wants universities to continue to pay high prices for this access --a disagreement with PLoS at least as large as his agreement.
There are roughly two ways to provide researchers with free access to research literature. On the prevailing commercial model, universities pay a lot of money for it, and institutions without a lot of money do without. Researchers employed by paying universities needn't pay for access out of their own pockets and in that sense get it for free. On the FOS model, universities or other institutions pay a small amount of money to disseminate articles published by their faculty, which are thereafter freely available to everyone. The models differ on the size of subsidy, what it pays for (access or dissemination), and the scope of free access. On the commercial model, access is only free for the buyer's lucky beneficiaries, such as employees, while on the FOS model it is free for everyone. (For more on these two models, see FOSN for 1/1/02.)
Elsevier and the FOS movement (including PLoS) agree that users can have free access if someone buys it for them. But they advocate these two very different models with very different consequences. What divides them is not a mere bookkeeping distinction, and not a mere difference of means to the "same end".
Let's say that researchers have only a "narrow interest" in free access if they only care whether they have access without paying for it. They don't care whether it requires a large subsidy from their employer, rather than a small one, and they don't care whether researchers without rich employers are left in the cold. Haank assumes that researchers have only this narrow interest.
Perhaps Haank is thinking that the wider interest that supports FOS adds nothing to the narrow interest except political idealism. But this would be a mistake. It's true that FOS will have far-reaching political consequences, which include giving control of scholarship to scholars, de-enclosing a commons, and serving the under-served. But it doesn't follow that researchers who care only about research, and not these consequences, have only the narrow interest that Haank attributes to them. There are at least two very practical reasons for practical researchers to transcend the narrow interest in free access. The first is to see one's institution save money in its library budget that it could then spend on other pressing needs, including other research needs met by libraries. The second is that research advances more quickly and surely if more people are able to participate. If the lesson of open source software is that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" (Eric Raymond), then the analogous lesson of FOS is that "given enough researchers in the loop, all research errors are shallow".
There are several other interesting points to observe about Haank's position, beyond the way he overstates his agreement with PLoS.
The first is simply the extent to which Haank does agree with PLoS. He admits that scholarly publishers have made a mistake to accept high subscription prices at the expense of low circulation. He admits that "the end-user gets poor service" and understands that this leads many to support FOS initiatives like PLoS. He acknowledges that scholars want free access to all scholarly journals. He acknowledges that moving journals online is part of the solution. He wants free online access to journals for end-users to be subsidized. This is all real, even if he doesn't acknowledge the very large differences that remain.
The second is the way Haank acknowledges that there is a "movement" to achieve free online access to scholarly journals, and the way he feels constrained to position himself as agreeing with this movement. If his project of aggregating journals and charging universities for them is called X, then he could have said, "This movement is simply wrong. We will do X despite its misguided arguments." But instead he said, "This movement is right. We will do X and achieve its goal by a different means." The same X could have been plugged into a criticism of the FOS movement, but he felt obliged to spin it as agreement.
The third is an attitude toward FOS that belies his agreeable spin. He argues that if publishers like Elsevier can put the research literature online and disseminate it with efficiency and neutrality, then "the need for these new initiatives will go away". Despite his rhetoric of agreement, then, he doesn't understand the real motivation for preferring FOS, doesn't accept it, and would rather make this movement go away than serve it.
Dick Kaser, Ghost in a Bottle
Public Library of Science
* Postscript. In the same issue of _Information Today_ with the Haank interview, Robin Peek writes on "The Future of the Public Library of Science". Unfortunately this article is not part of the free online edition of the paper, and I'm still in rural Maine without access to a newsstand that carries _IT_. I'll recommend it sight-unseen on the theory that it builds on the Kaser-Haank interview.
* PPS. I slightly oversimplified the commercial funding model above when I said that institutions that cannot afford the price of access must do without. There is a notable exception for institutions in developing countries. A growing number of programs offers them free or discounted subscriptions to a growing number of journals. On the one hand, publishers who adopt tiered pricing in order to spread access to those who cannot afford to pay full prices are truly spreading access and deserve thanks. On the other hand, these publishers are cultivating new markets and the dollar value of their "donation" is close to zero, since their costs are already covered and we're talking about the marginal cost of letting more people view their online files. Self-interest and generous inclinations can coexist in publishers just as they can in researchers.
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