Principles, Open Access, & Everyday Choices

It’s not enough to mean well, is it? Principles matter, but so do the effects of acting on our strongly held beliefs. We need to keep re-visiting our values in considering the impact of our everyday choices. It’s awfully easy to cross the fine line between idealism and becoming ideological. And that’s dangerous territory.

Arthur Miller quote: "Nothing is as visionary or as blinding as moral indignation"
From Timebends: A Life

My position has shifted in the last few years on several issues related to open-ness in science and publishing. Some of that is because of shifting or building evidence. Such as gradually moving to a strong position in favor of open peer review.

But some of it is because I realized I had made the wrong choice between competing principles and values.

For example, I had committed to never publishing in a journal that wasn’t completely open access with no subscriptions (“gold” open access) – even if that meant pulling out of projects because that wasn’t the group’s plan. And I did that. And I regret it. Opportunity to possibly influence a large audience was a cost of that position. So for now at least, I decided to modify the commitment to cover only scientific research results specifically.

Changes in the ecosystem are changing how I feel about this too. I had been convinced by the argument that author processing charges (APCs) would sink. But they have risen. People argue there are free “gold” options – most OA journals don’t have APCs, people often say. That’s generally based on the data at the DOAJ directory. It’s not a realistic framing, though. Many of those free-to-publish-and-free-to-read journals publish relatively few articles, are very restricted in scope or geographical focus, and/or aren’t indexed in major services like PubMed so that the work is findable – a key part of accessibility.

On the one hand, APCs have risen. On the other, though, the opportunities for making science open have broadened. Making your data and a preprint open for free is increasingly viable, as more non-gold journals accept this sea change. Combining that with depositing your final manuscript in an institutional repository (“green” open access) ticks the boxes at an individual level. But it also shores up the crushingly costly subscription model of scholarly publishing. Not to mention the insidious impact of journal prestige as a driver of culture.

Principles and values often clash. But we can put a lot of effort into not seeing or acknowledging it. It’s better if we make this explicit and deal with the complexity, though, than to think we’re taking a principled stand when it’s not that simple.

I was a health consumer advocate in leadership positions for many years. So I spent a lot of time caught in tension between competing principled positions. Take the basic consumer rights, set out by John F. Kennedy in 1962: I was committed to all of them. But two in particular frequently conflicted when we had to make choices on positions – the right to safety and the right to choose. Think medicine regulation, for example. Consumer groups tore apart on which side people tilted towards on this one in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

Graphical display of work, communication, advocacy

When I think about principles and open access, it helps me to think of principles related to 3 areas that co-exist: accessibility of the work itself, open access in how we communicate about the work, and advocacy.

Even if we don’t think of ourselves as advocates, we have a relationship to the advocacy of others. The open access movement has, as does any social arena, people with charisma and skill at manipulation. If we want to be principled, we need to develop immunity to this.

7 principles of public life - click on image to read

Image of aspects of generosity in science


The cartoons are my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). (More cartoons at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.)

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.