why is the asa against public access?
Federal grant agencies have asked people who receive grants to make the results of their work “public access.” In other words, if the public pays for it, the public should get to read it. Turns out that the ASA is against this policy. In a letter dated January 9, 2012 (about two years ago), Sally Hillsman, executive officer of the ASA makes a strong argument against public access. Here is the letter and some key clips. Please read the letter yourself (open_access_hillsman):
It remains unclear why the federal government should spend scarce taxpayer dollars appropriated for scientific research to add to existing dissemination avenues. This is what scientific societies such as the ASA and our private sector publishing partners have done for over a century, and continue to do extremely well today. The national and international marketplace demonstrates that non-‐profit and profit-‐making scientific publishers in collaboration with scholarly societies have responded vigorously and competitively to expand access to scientific knowledge as new demands for content and sophisticated communication technologies have emerged. This success suggests that federal science agencies should invest taxpayer dollars in the research itself, especially as federal dollars that support scientific innovation fail to keep up with the pace of research.
There are no empirical studies that I know of which support the notion that free access to the scientific research literature will increase research productivity or economic growth in the United States.
ASA spends nearly $600,000 annually on journal editorial office expenses alone (which does not include administrative costs, printing and mailing expenses, editor honoraria, legal or overhead costs). ASA does not pay peer reviewers, but in return we sacrifice some revenue by a long-‐standing policy of keeping our university library subscription prices low (averaging well under $300 in 2011) in explicit recognition of the contribution university faculty make as peer reviewers, editors, and editorial board members.
Comments: First, it seems that the main issue in Dr. Hillsman’s response is that they are concerned about the income stream. I think this is a legitimate concern. But it should lead to a few sensible questions. For example, in an age of electronic publishing, why does one need $600,000 for a journal office? At the AJS, of which I was an editor, we had (1) a full time manager (call it $50k), (2) some part time staff ($50k), (3) office space (say $5k month – $60k per year) and toss in $50k for postage, computers, etc. That totals about $210k per year. If we give Andy a nice fat bonus for running the joint ($50k), you get up to $260k. I am not sure why we need to wrack up hundreds of thousands more in administrative costs.
But there are deeper questions. What is preventing the ASR from going all electronic and printing paper versions on demand for a few readers? Or going free access, but having advertisements or the “freemium” model? In other words, this argument seems to be a rear guard defense of an older publishing model, not an attempt to creatively think about how the ASR can be read by the widest audience possible.
Second, I don’t think Dr. Hillsman’s letter gets at the main point – the Federal government, sensibly, doesn’t want the results of funded research to be hidden behind pay walls. The pay wall for ASR may not be a barrier to social scientists who have university accounts, but $300 is a barrier for many other readers. But the Federal government’s argument isn’t directed at the ASA. It’s directed at other publishers who charge thousands of dollars for a journal subscription. If you are a lay person, a poor person, or someone from another country, this is a real barrier.
We are now living in an exciting era of journal publishing. We have traditional models, the egalitarian PLoS One model, and the “up or out” Sociological Science model. I say let us experiment, not drift into rent seeking defenses of a 19th century approach to science.