It’s one month after SOPA/PIPA. Congress is currently considering two bills. The Federal Research Public Access Act would require federal funders to insist on open-access publication of funded research papers after an embargo period. The NIH currently has such a policy, with a one year embargo. As of now, the FRPAA has essentially no chance of passing. On the other hand, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act would reverse the current NIH policy and ban any other federal funders from setting similar access mandates. It has heavy Congressional support. How should you think of this as an economist? (A quick side note for economists: the world we live in, where working papers are universally available on author’s personal websites, is almost unheard of in other fields. Only about 20% of academic papers published last year were available online in ungated versions. This is about 100% in economics and high energy physics and a few other fields, and close to 0% otherwise.)
I did some consulting in the fall for a Kaufmann-funded CED report released yesterday called The Future of Taxpayer-Funded Research. There is a simple necessary condition that any government policy concerning new goods should not violate: call it The First Law of Zero Marginal Product Goods. The First Law says that if some policy increases consumption of something with zero marginal cost (an idea, an academic paper, a song, an e-book, etc.), a minimum, necessary condition to restrict that policy is that the variety of affected new goods must decrease. So if music piracy increases the number of songs consumed (and the number of songs illegally downloaded in any period of time is currently much higher than worldwide sales during that period), a minimum economic justification for a government crackdown on piracy is that the number of new songs created has decreased (in this case, they have not). Applying The First Law to open access mandates, a minimum economic justification for opposing such mandates is that either open access has no benefits, or that open access will make peer reviewed journals economically infeasible. To keep this post from becoming a mess of links, I leave out citations, but you can find all of the numbers below in the main report.
On the first point, open access has a ton of benefits even when most universities subscribe to nearly all the important journals. It “speeds up” the rate at which knowledge diffuses, which is important because science is cumulative. It helps solve access difficulties for private sector researchers and clinicians, who generally do not have subscriptions due to the cost; this website is proof that non-academics have interest in reading academic work, as I regularly receive email from private sector workers or the simply curious. Most importantly, even the minor access difficulties caused by the current gated system, such as having to go to a publisher website, having to click “Accept terms & conditions”, etc., versus just reading a pdf, matter. Look at the work by Fiona Murray and Scott Stern and Heidi Williams and others, much of which has been covered on this website: minor restrictions on ease can cause major deviations to efficiency in a world where results are cumulative. Such effects are only going to become more important as we move into a world where computer programs search and synthesize and translate research results.
The second point, whether open access makes peer review infeasible, is more important. The answer is that open access appears to have no such effects. Over time, we have seen many funders and universities, from MIT to the Wellcome Trust, impose open access mandates on their researchers. This has, to my knowledge, not led to the shutdown of even a single prominent journal. Not one. Profits in science publishing remain really, really high, as you’d expect in an industry with a lot of market power due to lock-in. Cross-sectionally, there is a ton of heterogeneity in norms: every high energy physicist and mathematician puts their work on arXiv, and every economist backs up their work online, yet none of this has led to the demise of peer reviewed journals and their dissemination function in those fields. Even within fields, radically different policies have proven sustainable. The New England Journal of Medicine makes all articles freely accessible after 6 months. The PLoS journals are totally open access, charging only a publication fee of $1350 upon acceptance. Other journals keep their entire archive gated. All are financially sustainable models, though of course they may differ in terms of how much profit the journal can extract.
One more point, and it’s an important one. Though the American Economics Association has not taken a position on these bills – as far as I know, the AEA does very little lobbying at all, keeping its membership fee low, for which I’m glad! – many other scholarly societies have taken a position. And I think many of their members would be surprised that their own associations oppose public access, something which I think can safely be said to be supported by nearly all of their members. Here is a full list of responses to the recent White House RFI on public access mandates. The American Anthropological Association opposes public access. The American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association both strongly oppose public access. These groups all claim first that there is no access problem to begin with – simply untrue for the reasons above, all of which are expanded on in the CED paper – and that open access is incompatible with social science publishing, where articles are long and even rejected articles regularly receive many comments from peer review. But we know from the cross section that this isn’t true. Many learned societies publish open access journals, even in the social sciences, and many of them don’t charge any publication fee at all. The two main societies in economics, thankfully, both publish OA journals: the AEA’s Journal of Economic Perspectives, and the Econometric Society’s TE and QE. And even non-OA economics journals essentially face an open access mandate with a 0-month embargo, since everyone puts their working papers online. Econ is not unique in the social sciences: the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, for instance, is open access. If you’re a member of the APA, ASA or AAA, you ought voice your displeasure!
http://www.ced.org/images/content/issues/innovation-technology/DCCReport_Final_2_9-12.pdf (Final published version of CED report – freely available online, of course!)