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Value Added by Publishers?

Thanks to Mike and Brett for inviting me. I’m a long-time reader and it’s great to get a chance to post here.

Let me kick things off with a comment on this piece in Seed Magazine, covering legislation to make a good deal of federally funded scientific research open-access. Given that tax dollars support the research, it’s astonishing that publishers have managed to lock up access for so long. As John Willinsky has documented, they are starting to loosen up in some ways. But they oppose this legislation, arguing

There needs to be an income stream from the core scientific community, the libraries, the research institutions, and . . . corporations and scientific laboratories within the private sector. If you give it away for free the income stream dries up. The system of control and value-adding just withers away.

But just what is this “value-adding?” Amanda Schaffer suggests it doesn’t amount to much:

Academic scientists, some backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of public moneys, provide their findings and articles to most journals for free. Peer-reviewers, who perform the crucial quality-control work, also offer comments on research papers for no charge.

Should a company like Reed-Elsevier make a 30% profit margin for proofreading? (By the way, I’d support that 30% figure with a link to a Rick Weiss article in the WaPo documenting it, but you’d have to pay for accessing it. It should come as no surprise that closed access systems tend to defeat arguments against them. Only those “on the inside” can afford to get access to the data….and they in turn have an interest in maintaining that informational advantage. Admittedly, the Washington Post appears to me to add a lot more value than, say, the publisher of Proceedings of the Congress of Amygdala Studies. )

Well, I don’t have much more to say on this today (and you’re probably too busy to read more!). My final reaction is to be saddened that it’s taking Congressional action to open up research findings, given Samuel Trosow’s very convincing arguments that the relevant agencies likely already have statutory authority to do so. But I can be convinced otherwise if I can hear a good account of the “value” publishers add.