This post initially appeared on Science Blogs

While going back through blog archives and reviewing incoming links, I stumbled on this post from about a year ago from Zen Faulkes at Neuro Dojo:

There are many reasons to argue for open access of scientific research. But this is not the best one:

It’s your taxes that fund the research, you should have access to the results without me or anyone else being a mediator.

That one is from Kevin at We, Beasties. When I protested that this argument omits indie science, Kevin replied that it’s such a small amount as to be not even worth considering.

I object to this characterization of my argument (I did not say it wasn't worth considering, I pointed out that as government funding accounts for greater than 90% of all funding, they have by far the largest stick to beat publishers with), but that quibble is a bit beside the point. There's an important question here that I think deserves consideration, especially as #OAS gains more traction in public policy debates and in the public consciousness* (which is why I'm dragging up a year-old blog post). What's the best way to convince people that it's the right thing to do?

Zen's original comment objecting to the "taxes" argument does make some fair points - not all science is government funded and our government isn't the only one funding it. Instead, he writes that:

Scientific results are a common good that create the greatest benefit when they are shared.


Scientific research operates best when you have sharing and transparency. That, I think, is the best argument for open access policies regardless of who pays for it.

I totally agree that this is a great argument, and I've made it too

Science benefits when the flow of information is unrestricted and everyone benefits when scientific knowledge advances.

But is this argument better than the taxes argument? There are serious problems with the "public good" argument and the "efficiency" argument as well. If your approach is to convince the government to change its policy, arguing that something is a public good and should therefore be brought into the public sphere is likely to poison your position with half the members of congress. I'm so progressive I'm almost a socialist, so the argument works well for me, but publishing is a business and having the government step in and essentially destroy (or at least radically overhaul) a sector of private industry with new regulation would never fly. And that same group of congress people essentially views "government" and "efficiency" as antonyms.

Is it a better argument to convince other scientists? I applaud the goal of trying to get more scientists to publish there stuff in open access journals, but I just don't think that this sort of ground-up effort can work on its own. There are too many institutional barriers to scientists that want to buck the trend - grant money, career advancement and prestige are all tied to publication record, and the most prestigious journals are not open access. Several of my grad school buddies have said that I'm crazy, the system we have is just fine and anyway even if it's not, there's no way to change it. For them, the taxes argument is probably a loser, but maybe efficiency and public good will only work for some of them.

I don't know what the answer is. Ultimately, I think that moving towards open access and even entirely different models for disseminating scientific information is one of the most important causes in modern science, and I think we should pursue every angle to convince people of its merit.

  • I even heard Leo Laporte bring up academic publishing on the most recent episode of This Week in Google (around minute 54). It was just in passing, but this tells me that the issue is filtering into public consciousness. It would be interesting to know what argument(s) resonate with him.