And now, for some FUD from the AAP

[This is a post I wrote a long time ago but left in draft form for way too long.]

Look up the term FUD on Wikipedia if you are unfamiliar with it and then come back to this article. According to an article in the online version of Nature, the American Association of Publishers (AAP) has hired a “pit bull of public relations” to counter the rise of free information. From the article:

Now, Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available.

From what I gather in the article, the strategy that the AAP will adopt is to spread FUD of this sort (quoted from the article):

Public access equals government censorship.

What a load of nonsense! This slogan is so patently flawed, it boggles the mind that scientific publishers would seriously consider it. (The phrase “Arbeit macht frei” comes immediately to mind when I read that quote above!) In support for that slogan Brian Crawford argues (again, quoted from the article):

When any government or funding agency houses and disseminates for public consumption only the work it itself funds, that constitutes a form of selection and self-promotion of that entity’s interests.

So Mr. Crawford, is the solution to prevent the free dissemination of information? Are you serious!? Crawford’s obfuscating statement conceals a quite different concern than ideological bias. The government is considering requiring that scientific articles that were published as part of projects that received governmental funds should be freely available to the public. This is a mandate that the government can seriously consider in this age because information technology has dramatically transformed publishing. Moving physical pieces of paper is no longer a requirement for publishing: everything can be done electronically. Granted, if governmentally funded articles are freely available and articles that offer counter-positions can be obtained only with serious difficulty (financial or otherwise), then the views presented in research funded by the government are going to be advantaged insofar as they are going to be comparatively more accessible than other views. This imbalance, in turn, will create market pressures that will favor a general reduction of prices. If my article costs $50 to get but the article of my opponent is free, then I am at a disadvantage in the market of ideas because the propagation of my ideas is hindered by the barrier of money. It is to my advantage to remove this barrier so as to favor the propagation of my ideas, hence it is likely that for my next article I will seek a mode of publication that will not erect such barrier. Slowly but surely, the actual producers of knowledge — the scholars and scientists — will turn away from publishers who cannot justify the costs they tack onto the books and articles they publish. Since I think the justifiable costs are much lower than what publishers currently require, I foresee that the quest to remove money as an obstacle to the flow of information will result in a dramatic upheaval of the publishing field: money will still flow but will flow very differently than it does now and the role of the publisher will move from being an indispensable center of power to that of an auxiliary, providing clerical services to associations of scientists and scholars. It is to this scenario in which publishers are pushed to the margins of power that publishers are objecting to. As long as the publishers are the gatekeepers of information, they can exact a toll and can maintain their revenue. Any movement towards removing the financial barriers to the dissemination of information is a threat to their position.

With their campaign the AAP is not really trying to defend the scientific process or democracy. The real goal of the AAP is just like that of the RIAA and the MPAA: it is trying to hijack public policy to preserve its obsolete business model. The goal of the AAP is neither to benefit the creators of the information they publish, nor to benefit their customers but to benefit themselves first and foremost. I offer for evidence the following reasoning. If the AAP’s primary concern was about the government promoting some specific views to the detriment of other views, they would be arguing against all government-funded research because the very act of selecting some research projects for funding and rejecting others results in the government promoting some views but not others. Eliminating all government-funded research would be much more effective at eliminating possible governmentally influenced bias in science than what Crawford proposes but Crawford cannot support it. Here’s the rub: eliminating government-funded research would also mean eliminating all the articles that are produced by that research. In effect, the publishers would lose a good deal of the content they are currently selling to their customers. So under the guise of trying to counter governmental bias, the AAP is really just looking after its own interests: there must be content for them to sell and they must be able to exact a toll on that content.

Now, I do not think that getting the government to stop funding research is desirable. I find the research they fund valuable. I also do not find that private interests intersect with public interests so I am not convinced by arguments that private funding is an adequate substitute for public funding. It seems to me that the solution to the problem invoked by Crawford is twofold and does not involve repressing free information in any way, shape or form. First, activists have to ensure that the government funds scientific projects on the basis of scientific merit rather than on the basis of ideology. What good does it do if the government erects barriers against freely accessing the results of the research it funds if the allocation of public funds remains influenced by criteria that have nothing to do with proper scientific process? Secondly, and this is rather ironic given the untenable position the AAP has taken, an excellent solution to government-sponsored scientific bias would the free dissemination of research that supports positions that the government is trying to suppress. And this is precisely what I said would happen in my little scenario above: if the government freely publishes the results of its research, then people offering counter-positions will also seek to have their own positions freely available.

The AAP represents publishers stuck in the age of dinosaurs who cannot conceive of a world in which publishers are no longer indispensable gatekeepers in the dissemination of scholarly information. Their know their position is increasingly threatened but instead of moving with the times, they are trying — like the RIAA and the MPAA — to force time to stand still with dubious logic and a general hijacking of public policy.

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