Monday, July 17, 2017

On sponsorship, transparency, scholarly publishing, and open access

Sponsorship in the research and library communities is pervasive today, and scholarly publishers are some of the most generous providers of it. This generosity comes at a time when scholarly communication is in sore need of root-and-branch reform. However, since publishers’ interests are no longer aligned with the needs of the research community, and they have a vested interest in the legacy system, the research community might be best to avoid publisher sponsorship. Yet researchers and librarians seek it out on a daily basis.

While the benefits of this sponsorship to the research community at large are debatable, publishers gain a great deal of soft power from dispensing money in this way. And they use this soft power to help them contain, control and shape the changes scholarly communication is undergoing, often in ways that meet their needs more than the needs of science and of scientists. This sponsorship also often takes place without adequate transparency. 

Sponsorship and lobbying (which often amount to the same thing), for instance, have assisted legacy publishers to co-opt open access. This has seen the triumph of the pay-to-publish model, which has been introduced in a way that has enabled publishers to adapt OA to their needs, and to ringfence and port their excessive profits to the new OA environment. Those researchers who do not have the wherewithal to pay article-process charges (APCs), however, are finding themselves increasingly disenfranchised.

Sponsorship has also to be seen in a larger context. With paywalls now viewed askance, and pay-to-read giving way to free-to-read, more and more content is being funded by the producers rather than the readers. This has a number of consequences. Above all, it has made it increasingly difficult to distinguish neutral information and reporting from partisan content created solely to serve the interests of the creator/sponsor. Now commonly referred to as “fake news”, this is normally associated with biased and/or false information about, say, politicians, elections, and celebrity deaths etc., and its origin and purpose is often unknown.

But open access has presented science with the same kind of problem. With many authors now choosing (or having) to pay for the publication of their papers, and publishers’ revenues directly related to the number of articles they publish, unscrupulous authors are now able to find an outlet for any paper regardless of its quality. 

It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish legitimate science from pseudoscience. This is in part a consequence of publishers’ use of sponsorship (and lobbying) to foist a flawed business model on the science community. And by continuing to dispense sponsorship, publishers are able to perpetuate and promote this model, and maintain their grip on scholarly communication.

These are the kinds of issues explored in the attached essay (pdf file). It includes some examples of publisher sponsorship, and the associated problems of non-transparency that often go with it. In particular, there is a detailed case study of a series of interviews conducted by Library Journal (LJ) with leading OA advocates that was sponsored by Dove Medical Press

Amongst those interviewed was the de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber. Suber gave three separate interviews to LJ, but not once was he informed when invited that the interviews were sponsored, or that they would be flanked with ads for Dove – even though he made it clear after the first interview that he was not happy to be associated with the publisher in this way.

The essay can be accessed as a pdf file here.