Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, recently alerted me to this important discussion about FRPAA. It is a strong rebuttal to claims that FRPAA (.pdf text of the bill) will endanger the sustainability of scholarly publication, wreck the peer-review process, and harm professional societies. Such concerns underlie much of the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) stated opposition to FRPAA.

The debunking of the objections to FRPAA comes from the Treasurer of the American Society for Cell-Biology. Obviously, in his capacity as Treasurer, Gary Ward is keenly aware of financial sustainability issues. Here are some important excerpts:

2. Forcing journals to release their content for free will destroy their revenue base. False. Scores of prestigious and financially successful journals offer their content for free after periods of time ranging from zero to 12 months”

4. The legislation threatens the peer-review system. False. It is unclear on what grounds this argument is made, but it is made often and it is made loudly”

6. There is no serious access problem; everyone who needs access to the scientific literature already has access. False. This is an understandable misconception frequently held by those who reside at the most well-funded research institutions. For everyone else, the lack of access is a real and daily problem. The ’subscription havenots” include not only large, financially stretched state universities that serve many students and faculty, but also small colleges.

9. The public doesn’t care about this issue. Perhaps, but this may also be changing. Recent articles in The New York Times and The Economist suggest that the issue is starting to get the public ’s attention. Furthermore, a recent Harris poll published by the Wall Street Journal shows that 82% of those surveyed believe that “if tax dollars pay for scientific research, people should have free access to the results of that research on the Internet”

Click here to download the whole thing (.pdf file)

Now, it is not my purpose to bash the AAA on this matter. I believe very strongly that they are mistaken in their opposition to FRPAA, but I also believe it is essential to fully explore and address the concerns of scholarly societies and their publishing arms. A paper (or a research database or image archive) may be expensive to produce, review, and edit, but virtually instantaneous global distribution is nearly free. This cost equation has the potential to make free and open access economically viable, provided production and editing costs can be sustained. In moving toward open access, we need to consider how the costs will be covered. It is obvious that not every open access model will be sustainable or appropriate for disciplines such as anthropology or archaeology. I can’t imagine “author-side fees” (such as those expected by PLoS) working in these disciplines. I can imagine a system where professional societies, university libraries, and other consortia come together to underwrite and subsidize open access dissemination. Universities and university libraries already spend a great deal of money on publication, and shifting some of these resources toward lower-cost open access systems seems viable. Peter Suber has devoted much attention to this issue and explores many pragmatic options (two examples: here and here.) I”m glad open access advocates in anthropology are careful and judicious in how they approach this issue (see this open letter on Savage Minds). Not all routes toward open access are the same. Some may be more sustainable than others, and some models adhere to the ideals of “open knowledge” more than others. FRPAA represents one strategy, and as noted by Gary Ward (above), FRPAA represents little risk to existing publication frameworks.
That said, we must not loose sight of the fact that the current publication regime is in trouble and is not sustainable (here, here, and this imporant letter about cost pressures on the University of California libraries). The AAA needs to remember this broader context before they entrench themselves even further in their opposition to FRPAA. In the name of protecting their subscription revenues, they run the risk of alienating their most important customers: university libraries. After all, these libraries represent one of the groups most supportive of FRPAA. If the AAA refuses to listen to their customers and try to meet their concerns, then those customers will naturally seek alternatives.

Hopefully, heads will cool and the AAA executive staff will realize that the (now defunct) AnthroSource Steering Committee recommendations, especially for the development of a “member-informed policy on open access” are sound and reasonable. FRPAA and open access should not be summarily dismissed. They are important issues that need to be aired and debated by the membership and other anthropological stakeholders. Hopefully, we”ll continue to see some progress toward these ends.