"I Want Direct Subsidies of Publishing"

Why do some researchers want patronage end-to-end? Because it could make life easier.

"I Want Direct Subsidies of Publishing"

In a tweet from November 30, 2018, Michael Eisen said something worth exploring, partly because it seems to encapsulate some issues within OA publishing in general and Plan S in particular:

This looks like an overt argument for a patronage-driven publishing economy.

While we’re accustomed to thinking of funders as benign or benevolent entities, it’s perhaps worth recalling that in the US, the Department of Defense is by far the largest funder of research. So, yeah, military-industrial complex and all that . . . but let’s save that for another day. Corporations also fund a lot of research, mostly with commercial aspirations. And it’s perhaps worth noting the growing role of China as a funder of research. You know, autocratic, lifetime rule, and an emerging surveillance state.

Funders aren’t perfect. They have scandals and problems, like a Wellcome charity being accused of bullying employees, Wellcome getting criticized for being unwilling to divest of fossil fuel stocks, and Wellcome receiving criticism for paying its top executive millions. More locally, there was the eLife scandal, which involved Wellcome Trust employees seeking advantageous treatment from a division within the US National Institutes of Health — two funders involved here.

The issues with funders go well beyond Wellcome Trust and its network. In a 2016 study of global health aid funding, 83% of respondents to a survey listed “corruption and misuse of funds” as the major reason it has been difficult to improve the health and lives of people in developing countries.

So, perhaps funders need to be held to account, just like any individual or large, powerful organization.

Taking Eisen’s proposal at face value, how might non-APC (or non-publication-event) subsidies of publishers work, assuming all funders have pure and agreeable motives? There aren’t many options I can imagine that wouldn’t relate to publication volume or publication events, but here are two (I struggled for the second one):

  • Publishers receive a set amount each year from funders, and promise to review and accept articles from them as they see fit. This approach was recently tried in an agreement between AAAS and the Gates Foundation, but fell apart when the costs were far too much for AAAS, and the Gates Foundation proved unwilling to increase its subsidy to cover the additional costs.
  • Funders establish and manage a fund where publishers who agree to a collective mandate would receive a set percentage of the fund each year. For example, a $10 million fund would have an enrollment period, and then those qualifying — let’s say 20 publishers — would each receive $500,000 each year. Already, you can detect problems. The fund would likely be inadequately funded. Publication volume is the main stressor on the system currently, and it is increasing, meaning the collective fund would probably be outstripped fairly quickly. A fund like this would add management and transaction costs to the system, and would have price caps that would only be acceptable to some publishers. Even those publishers who qualified would need to find additional revenues from publication events. There aren’t that many funders interested in subsidizing publishers. And so forth.

Aside from being impractical and possibly adding yet further administrative burdens to the publishing economy, the more puzzling thing is that Eisen seems to want to return to the patronage era, a time we left firmly behind decades if not centuries ago.

Other OA advocates seem comfortable with a return to patronage. If realized, Plan S would represent a subsidy program for publishers, and a return to a patronage-driven publication economy, with prices set by a consortium of patrons.

It’s perplexing why patronage would seem so attractive, until you realize that authors and funders both want the same thing — less uncertain paths to publication.

Tensions between publishing and patronage have an informative history. As noted in a recent interview on the Scholarly Kitchen with Melinda Baldwin, peer review was introduced as a circuit breaker on the patronage of scientific research:

. . . the idea that a grant or journal article has to be peer-reviewed to  be scientifically respectable arose as scientists grappled with the  consequences of increased public funding for their work. There were a  number of observers who wanted scientists to be more accountable to legislators and members of the public because they were receiving public money. Scientists, however, didn’t really want congressmen weighing in on which grant proposals they liked best. So scientists pushed the idea that peer review — evaluation by experts — was the only legitimate way  to distinguish good science from bad science.

Peer review for journals was established to some extent by this time, with systematic peer review stretching back to the 1930s and even earlier.

However, for funders and granting bodies, independent peer review and the resulting unpredictability has proven frustrating — they pour money into a system without being able to know how much yield they will get from this funding. Indicative of their discontent, government funders, politicians, and corporate sponsors have edged toward meddling in the peer-review process again and again, with the independence of the publishing economy and its modeling of peer review’s strengths helping to bat down those efforts.

The issue for funders is that scientists and editors out of their control might call the science they funded “incremental” or “flawed” or “uninteresting” and shepherd the results into marginal journals or even the dustbin of history. Or these same editors and scientists may elevate and amplify research results the funders sought to bury.

It is the norm for a movement adopting the label “open” to drift toward patronage. The lack of commercial funding alternatives almost demands it, making reliance on patrons a hallmark of “open.” This skews the economy toward existing power centers. As I wrote recently elsewhere, Jaron Lanier has argued that “open” initiatives seem to simply move established creative outputs onto less viable economic footing, with fewer winners and more losers. This has major consequences, as Lanier notes about the creative arts in his earlier book, “You Are Not a Gadget”:

[Open] . . . could eventually force anyone who wants to survive on the basis of mental activity . . . to enter into some sort of legal or political fortress -- or become a pet of a wealthy patron -- in order to be protected. . . . We forget what a wonder, what a breath of fresh air it has been to have creative people make their way in the world of commerce instead of patronage. Patrons gave us Bach and Michelangelo, but it's unlikely patrons would have given us Vladimir Nabokov, the Beatles, or Stanley Kubrick.

If you want a more vibrant and diversified research publication ecosystem, increased dependence on funders is not the way to go. Lanier observes that because there are fewer winners and more losers in an “open” economy, “open” creates reliance on the winners — the large funders, the large institutions, large governments.

Scientists and advocates like Eisen and others seem to want this dependency. Why? I think it’s because having funders as the main drivers of the scholarly economy might reduce the uncertainty involved in getting their papers published. After all, they both — the funders and the authors — want that paper published. A patronage-driven system would let them team up to lower the barriers of editorial and peer review sufficiently to virtually ensure publication. If you consider how OA publishers have routinely lowered the standard for publication — “scientifically valid” and so forth — the pattern becomes clearer.

Scientists advocating for funder subsidies, and even funder-driven OA, may say they want to liberate from paywalls an unreadable, highly technical, and conceptually opaque literature for the benefit of the public. (This has always seemed far-fetched, and there has never been a grassroots public movement demanding this — or did I miss a march?)

But maybe what some scientists want from OA is a shift of power to their patrons, so that it’s easier to publish papers, get tenure, and have stable academic careers. Academic life can be stressful and uncertain these days — there are too many PhDs, too few jobs, a lot fewer tenure tracks, and more competition for grant money.

OA may be motivated in part by a desire to have more predictability and control in the publish-or-perish paradigm. And that may be behind the desire to give patrons far more control than they have now.