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In the continuing, and often heated, debate over open access in academic and scientific publishing, Graham Taylor, former director of educational, academic and professional publishing with the UK Publishers Association and now head of consultancy The Long Game, has fired back from the publisher’s standpoint against the position of the Wellcome Trust in a blog post on The Bookseller whose tone can easily be deduced from its title: “Un-Wellcome.” He takes issue with what he describes as “ their latest orchestrated and cleverly timed effort to open up a new front in the open access debates with an assault on the (pejoratively termed) ‘luxury journals’,” via the new open access research website eLife floated by Professor Randy Schekman and already covered in TeleRead.

Taylor declares directly in his article that the Wellcome Trust and similar research endowments are using their insulation from market forces to exert undue pressure on luxury journals, and the academic publishing industry in general, to knuckle under in full. It’s worth quoting that passage in full to avoid any misconstrual:

“Clare Matteson at Wellcome maintains that eLife is “effectively independent”. Really? Independent of what? Its sponsors? Surely not. Matteson also maintains that Wellcome is “not out to get the luxury journals”. The rest of us have always thought the whole point of eLife was to use the muscle of the big foundations to disrupt the current top end paradigm. Why deny that now?”

So you heard it from Taylor first. Unless I totally misread this and other statements in his article, the suggestion is specifically that Schekman’s agenda, and even his timing in speaking out as he did in The Guardian, is beholden to his financial sponsors at the Wellcome Trust.

“How can a humble publisher respond in the face of such great forces for good?” Taylor asks rhetorically. Well, here’s one suggestion: Stop portraying your opposite numbers as acting in bad faith. And in this case, try to avoid accusing a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, who presumably must have some care for his own reputation for integrity and impartiality, of being a complicit catspaw of institutions with a hidden agenda.

Taylor has some points about the nature of the academic reward system that bear investigating. And as I said in my previous TeleRead coverage, Schekman may be doing some special pleading of his own on behalf of his platform – though probably for personal rather than pecuniary motives, if so.

But the whole question of the standing of the prestige journals is a red herring. The real question remains open access – just that. Scientists and others are attacking the publishers because they do not give open access to research funded by charitable institutions. And even when I complained that The Bookseller had put the Wellcome Trust’s comments on open access behind their paywall, they responded that they weren’t charitably funded like the Wellcome Trust. But isn’t that exactly the point? The charitable status and endowments are there purely to insulate these institutions from market pressures so that they don’t have to do things like … locking up stuff behind paywalls.

And with all these insinuations of complicity and collusion flying around, let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that The Bookseller and Taylor are in any kind of collusion. He says himself in his own piece that he is speaking for himself. And The Bookseller, with or without paywalls, has carried both sides of the debate.

But where does this idea that non-profits are cheats because they don’t have to earn a living by selling their wares suddenly come from? Taylor asks whether the prestige journals should be criticisd “by representatives of a direct competitor with an undeclared business model.” Sour grapes of this kind aren’t exactly helping the publishers win any sympathy, because they are making the competitor’s case themselves by not allowing open access.

“We are not charities, our operating costs must be recovered, systems up-graded, innovations launched, learned society cashflows supported and yes, profits made by private enterprises.” says Taylor. True, but those profits are also coming from articles stemming from research that charities pay for. The argument is that those who pay for that content are entitled to access to it – and in this case, that means the institutions and the scientific community.

The true issue of sustainability remains the demise of the older model of academic publishing as articulated by the UK Minister for Science David Willetts to Taylor’s own former employer in 2012. And Taylor doesn’t engage with that argument at all.

 

 
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