Is it ok to get paid to promote Open Access?

The title of this post might be a bit misleading. I don't really think it's much of a question.

Of course it's ok to get paid to promote open access.

My university pays me to be a librarian. I have faculty status. I can decide what I think are the most important issues in my field. I can advocate for solutions to those issues. I have decided that one of the most important issues in my field of science librarianship is the broken scholarly communications system. I have come to the conclusion that a system of open access to the scholarly literature is much fairer and probably ultimately much less expensive than the current system dominated by subscription-based publishers. So in my professional capacity as a science librarian I promote and advocate for open access.

And there are many others who get paid to promote open access -- other librarians, faculty, people that work for open access publishers, people that work for foundations, institutions, consortia and other non-profits that advocate and promote for various things. And others, I'm sure.

Perhaps one of the most renowned promoters of open access is Peter Suber. And he has written a book on open access, the publication of which he has announced here.

My book on open access is out.

I'm very happy to announce the publication of my new book, Open Access, from MIT Press.

The Kindle edition is available today <>. Digital editions in a dozen other formats will roll out over the summer.

The paperback edition is available for pre-order now from MIT Press <> and Amazon <>, and will ship in early August.

Before you ask: The book will become OA one year from now. If you can't wait that long, everything I've said in the book I've said in some form or another in an OA article over the years <>, probably more than once.

I plan to launch some kind of page where I can respond to reader comments and post updates. I welcome suggestions about the best way to do that.

Peter is getting paid to write the book, the publisher is charging people to read it. After a year, the book will become open access, although presumably people will still be able to pay for it if they want.

Is it moral and ethical for him to do this? Is he compromising his principles? Is Peter Suber the biggest hypocrite on the open access planet?

Yes, it is moral and ethical for him to do this. No, he is not compromising his principles and most emphatically Peter Suber is not a hypocrite.

Why do I have to say this?

Well, there have been a completely disgusting attach on Suber's character over at The Scholarly Kitchen: Money Talks — How Audience Priorities and Publishing Incentives Can Lead to Unusual OA Behaviors. The SK crowd is notoriously anti-open access but are usually easily ignored but this is a new low. I won't quote the post, but you can go read it for yourself. The comments are particularly enlightening.

And now, brass tacks.

Why is writing a book about open access, getting paid for it and having it published by a publisher that charges for the book not hypocritical?

First of all, the core goal of the open access movement is to remove toll access barriers to the primary scholarly literature.

This book is not part of the primary scholarly literature. It is a general introduction to a topic, almost a textbook if you will. As such it is more of a professional trade publication. But it is not a scholarly monograph.

As such it is perfectly legitimate for the author to be fairly compensated for her or his time and for the publisher to recoup their costs and a fair profit by selling the book to potential readers.

But isn't this action just Suber acknowledging that publishers have a role in preparing, editing and promoting works to the public, roles that add value to what they publish are roles that are worth supporting with real money in the publishing ecosystem? Isn't open access against that idea?

No, the open access movement isn't against the idea that publishing costs money. The open access movement readily acknowledges that publishers can and do add value to the works they edit. The goal of the open access movement is to remove the burden of paying for that added value from the public and shift it somewhere else, either to granting agencies, institutions or some other open access business model. No one denies that publishers can add value and that value is worth money.

Many books have been written promoting or explaining open access or one of its variations like open source software or open science. Most have been aimed to a general audience and have been published by regular trade and professional publishers who sell their books to readers and libraries. Probably the vast majority of those authors were paid for their time. In each case, it is perfectly legitimate.

Peter Suber has made a deal with the publisher to make his book open access after a year and that's a fantastic idea, one for which he and MIT Press should be congratulated. It's certainly an interesting experiment in business models and one that I hope works out for both of them financially.

I actually kind of feel bad writing this post. Suber certainly doesn't need me to defend him as I imagine he's taking this more in the "I've been called worse things by better people" mode. I usually just ignore the anti-open access posts on The Scholarly Kitchen. But I think this had to be said.

If you wish to add more reasons why Peter Suber isn't a hypocrite in the comments, please feel free. Oh yes, and please feel free to disagree with me as well.

Update 2012.06.25: Peter Suber has responded on Google+ and in the Scholarly Kitchen comments.

(Disclosure: I have requested a review copy of the book from the publisher and they'll be sending me one as soon as the print copies are ready. I intend to review the book here.)

4 responses so far

  • Steve Lawson says:

    John, I think the problem has to do with the game that Kent Anderson is playing over at the Scholarly Kitchen.

    I think you accept that scholarly publishing is complicated and that Open Access is an important part of the publishing world. It's something that you (and I) want to advocate for, but you also know that life is complicated and things aren't always black and white.

    For Anderson, that kind of rational and realistic advocacy doesn't fit the narrative he has constructed where all Open Access advocates are "moral zealots." Once he establishes this baseline, that all OA advocates are doctrinaire zealots, anything the OA advocate does is wrong. If someone like Suber releases a book with a conventional press that charges money for the book (even if it's a very low price for an academic title, even if it opens up after year), Anderson will be there with a GOTCHA to say that Suber is a hypocrite and that this publication is a victory for Anderson's point of view. It's the same strategy Rush Limbaugh uses when talking about his political opponents.

    Anderson asks, "Who determines when a compromise is appropriate?" The answer seems self-evident to me that authors and publishers may determine what compromises they wish to make. Authors who are inflexible when it comes to asserting their rights will have fewer options than authors who more readily compromise. Publishers who won't consider OA may find that authors they would like to publish won't publish with them. This is all fine, and not a sign of moral weakness on anyone's part.

  • Bill Hooker says:

    Remember where Anderson's salary comes from.

    The hypocrite driven by financial gain while claiming moral purity in this scenario is most emphatically not Peter Suber.

  • Matt Kaiser says:

    One of the moral arguments for open access is making *publicly-funded research* available to the people who paid for it. This doesn't seem applicable here.

  • anon says:

    +1 to Steve Lawson's comment!

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