Sustainability at Any Price is not Sustainable: Open Access and Archaeology

Posted in: Archaeology and Media, Archaeology and Politics, Conservation, Digital Archaeology
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By: Eric Kansa, UC Berkeley and

This blog post looks at the open access debate, and notes how sustainability is as much of an ideological and political question as it is a financial issue. It is intended to follow up on previous blog posts (first, second, third) that discuss how the Aaron Swartz prosecution and death highlighted tremendous injustices in the legal framework governing scholarly communications.

At this year’s Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference in Honolulu, I took part in discussions about open access in various forums, including the Digital Data Interest Group and a forum sponsored by the SAA Committee on Ethics. Sarah Kansa, a member of the SAA Publications Committee has also been participating in open access debates. There’s very little to report just yet, except that the issue of open access is clearly on the agenda of archaeology’s professional societies. The Obama Administration’s (Feb 2013) move to require open access of federally funded research outputs has clearly raised the stakes and urgency of the open access issue. This policy move followed years of advocacy efforts, culminating with a petition signed by over 65,000 people.

In these debates, open access has little explicit opposition as an ideal. Rather, resistance to open access focuses on fears of financial “sustainability.” The leaders of professional societies tend to cling to the status quo because they do not see a way to underwrite the costs of open access publication.

So let’s look at the issue of sustainability more closely.

Any form of publication has costs. Quality publication costs more. With Open Context, we’re working to develop editorial processes to publish higher-quality data, and we’re getting a better understanding of the required labor costs. As a publisher (but also as an academic author), I am very aware of the real costs and effort involved in publication.

However, publication costs make up only a fraction of the larger costs of doing quality research. Good research requires costly training, facilities, and in archaeology, it often requires access to remote locations, workers, labs, equipment, curation, site conservation, etc. Often these costs are financed with public funding (or publicly-regulated philanthropy). But even in cases where research costs are not directly financed through public support, field work is a highly regulated activity. Archaeological field work is almost universally governed or, in the case of Cultural Resource Management (CRM), mandated by public laws and agencies.

Since dissemination is an integral aspect of archeological research, archaeological dissemination practices also should work toward building public knowledge goods. The open access critique of status quo publishing is that conventional publishing models subvert the public interest and do not produce public goods, despite public financing of research. Conventional publishing channels public support of research (which finances and regulates all the facilities and the effort that occurs before an article even reaches an editor) into private “all-rights reserved” intellectual property.

One may argue that archaeology has gotten along just fine for many, many decades of conventional publishing, so why change it? There are two reasons, both involve the Web. First, the Web makes global distribution (copying content from servers like the one serving this blog, to clients like the browser you’re using) very cheap and easy. (Note: I said copying and distributing content is cheap; producing quality content is still expensive, as explained above). Cheap and easy copying and distribution is critical. It’s why open access is even on the agenda.

Second, the low cost of Web-based digital dissemination has helped to spark a political and legal context that makes open access increasingly needed for ethical, research, and instructional reasons. Cheap and easy copying and distribution represents a threat to traditional media business models, including publication business models. In response to this threat, media conglomerates have pushed for “the best laws money can buy,” (quoting copyright scholar, Pam Samuelson) and have pressured legislative bodies and law enforcement agencies to enact stricter controls, more intrusive surveillance, and harsher (actually oppressive) punishments for copying.

Unfortunately, these laws not only apply to popular music and movies, they also govern scholarly communications. Worse, many commercial scientific publishers actively promote and lobby to further strengthen these laws, leading to loss of privacy, invasive surveillance, and ever more draconian penalties. This transformed legal context, together with massive industry consolidation, makes conventional academic publishing very different from the “good ol’ days” before the Web.

Here are some highlights of just how bad, in a legal sense, the publishing situation has become:

  • Many researchers (CRM, adjunct) without regular university affiliations, who beg university-library logins from friends and colleagues, are effectively a criminalized underclass, facing grave legal risks. How many of us do this on a regular basis? These practices violate the same sort of terms-of-service that made Aaron Swartz face 50 years in prison. For instance, JSTOR’s terms of service (that Aaron Swartz allegedly violated in his felony charges) specifically prohibited actions like sharing logins.
  • Sharing papers (mainly in email, but also on social networking sites like also carries risks. These risks are mainly in civil (not criminal) law, but that could change if something like SOPA passes. Mass copyright lawsuits with financially ruinous penalties do happen, some involving 100,000 people at a time, including children.
  • In 2007, law Prof. John Tehranian published a study where he calculated a jaw-dropping $4.5 billion (yes, with a b) in potential copyright liability involved in routine academic research and instructional activities over the course of a single year.
  • Copyright has expanded in scope into a more or less absolute and perpetual property right. No US copyrighted works entered into the public domain last year. None. If archaeologists only communicate their results as all-rights-reserved intellectual property, they’re clearly engaged in a form of appropriation. The (more or less) absolute (no fair use) and perpetual (de facto unlimited copyright terms) nature of these property rights increasingly excludes all uses, save commercial transactions. Doesn’t that reduce the scholarly record of the past into commodities? Doesn’t this put mainstream archeology uncomfortably close to the antiquities trade?

 Killed by Sustainability?

Archaeology’s professional societies need to consider arguments about “sustainability” carefully. If we make financial sustainability our only concern in scholarly publishing, we undermine the whole point of research as a publicly supported pursuit. Our field is not sustainable, it does not turn a profit, and it requires continued public support (or public mandates in the case of CRM) to survive. We have to ask where monetizing the work of archaeology to make it “sustainable” only succeeds in breaking or distorting our field beyond recognition.

Open access and open data can reduce overall costs and increase research opportunities. But open access is hard to sustain if the locus of sustainability rests solely on individual organizations and projects. A recent court case helps to illustrate this. Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE sued Georgia State University over e-reserves to curtail “fair-use” (limitations in copyright law to allow research, instruction, critique, free speech). The suit was dismissed but at the cost of over $3 million in legal fees to the university, and appeals are still pending. $3 million could have fully endowed a new professor chair in archaeology, relieved student debt, funded research, or underwritten a new high-quality open access publishing venue. Worse, the high cost of defending against such charges, even when dismissed(!), creates a chilling effect. Though the publishers lost in this round, fair use is notoriously ambiguous and risky to defend in court. The risks involved will no doubt motivate university administrators to make it much more cumbersome and costly for faculty and students to exchange publications in instruction. This legal dispute will only contribute to the general bloat of overhead and administrative hassles that increasingly burden scholarly life. Sadly, we lack clear information or accounting of the insidious costs of copyright protectionism. This greatly complicates policy making.

The Georgia State University case highlights the dangers of thinking about “sustainability” too narrowly. Standard paywalls and strong copyright ended up benefiting nobody but the attorneys. Fixating on narrowly defined notions of sustainability leads to what economists call a collective action problem. Each individual project or organization tries to survive so they have a strong incentive to monetize their intellectual property (paywalls, absolutism in copyright). Damaging negative externalities (legal risks and costly barriers) are problems for others. Thus, the current system clearly pits the interests of professional societies and publishers against those of society members, students, adjuncts, researchers lacking affiliations, libraries, funding agencies, and the public. We should not forget that university administrators find cutting archaeology, like the rest of the humanities and social sciences, very tempting and easy. The high costs of publication in STEM fields leave less money for both open and paywalled humanities publications.

Ignoring these issues and failing to address the collective action problems just reinforces and promotes an ideology that activities that can’t be monetized are not worth pursuing. I see this as particularly dangerous for archaeology, since our field is highly dependent on laws to protect heritage from the negative impacts of market forces.

Let’s put it more bluntly. Our professional societies seem willing to accept that paywalls, whose breach means 50 years in a federal prison (such as the JSTOR / Aaron Swartz affair), are a necessary cost of doing business. If so, what is wrong with bulldozers plowing through archaeological sites without restriction or mitigation? Isn’t that a necessary cost of doing business in construction? Or what is wrong with a university closing an anthropology department and canceling subscriptions to archeological journals? Can’t that be justified in the name of sustainability? What negative externalities can’t be defended for reasons of sustainability?

Where do we go from here?

If recent history is any guide, and if I’m right about the direction of internal debates I’m following, our professional societies will likely attempt to undermine the Obama Administration’s tentative steps to promote open access. They will likely do this out of fear, not malice.

I don’t think the costs of publishing peer-reviewed, open access literature are insurmountable. Financing open access is a challenge, but there are many models and many years of experimentation from which to learn. Some points:

  • Green Open Access: The Whitehouse seems to have endorsed a “green” model of open access, where copies of peer-review publications become available in open access repositories after an embargo period. (Gold Open Access is another approach, where papers are immediately available, free-of-charge, under liberal licensing conditions). Green Open Access enables publishers to profit on exclusive access for a limited time. Unfortunately, green models have a limitation in that even after articles are publicly available, they are still under “all rights reserved” copyright. This may still leave reuse costly and difficult. Routine reuse such as duplication of a previously published image for comparison as well as innovative approaches to text-mining can still be stymied in costly and complex licensing and permissions negotiations. Nevertheless, despite these problems, public mandates for green open access would still represent tremendous progress.
  • Article Processing Fees (Gold Open Access): Article processing fees, such as the $1350 – $1500 charged by the Public Library of Science (PLOS) for immediate, free-of-charge, open access publishing in their journals, represent the most widely known model. This level of expense is far too high for archaeology, a field struggling with much more limited grant and publication budgets. But smaller author-side fees may be feasible via subsidizing publication costs from other sources. Such subsidies may be an ethical necessity, since any fee to publish represents a barrier. A “pay-to-say” model of open access, while less legally dangerous in terms of copyright and access, can also have equity problems. This issue just reinforces my overall point that under-financing research and research dissemination leads to many dysfunctions.
  • Membership Fees: PeerJ, an important new commercial publisher, believes it can make a profit publishing free and open peer-review papers financed with only $495 in membership dues levied on contributing authors per year. That price-point starts approaching feasibility for some archaeologists, though most will still need more subsidized support. PeerJ, which only recently launched, is currently focusing on biomedical sciences. It remains to be seen if its model can be extended to archaeology.
  • Redirection and Subsidies: The points above note that subsidies likely need to play an important role to finance open access. The most obvious source for such subsidies comes from redirecting library subscription income to directly underwriting open access publication costs. The particle physics community recently made this shift, where libraries, physics journals, and other stakeholder came together to form the SCOAP3 consortium that now finances open access publishing. This kind of approach needs to be explored for archaeology.

The Need to Reinvest in Public Goods

It may be that archaeology’s professional societies can find no viable path to finance open access with existing funding. Archaeology is clearly underfunded and it may be too hard to find an acceptable mix of subsidies, advertising, author-side fees, and member fees to pay for open access. If that is the case, we shouldn’t count on libraries to continue paying subscriptions and supporting the current model much longer; a lack of public support inescapably bites one way or another. Even Harvard University, blessed with the deepest pockets in higher education, claimed it can no longer afford the costs of paywall scholarship. For reasons of sustainability (oh the irony!), Harvard urged its faculty to publish in open access venues.

Professional societies need to openly acknowledge the costs and risks (especially draconian legal risks) of our current publishing model. If open access is too hard to finance with given resources, we need to clearly communicate to public and private granting foundations and other financial supporters the severity of our financial situation and the costs of under-investing in the public good. Pretending that all is fine and well with our current paywall approach to publishing will do nothing to solve our discipline’s financial problems. Worse, it will only perpetuate a crippling ideology that research endeavors need to be more “business-like” (profit seeking) to be worth pursuing.

Academic institutions, including archaeology’s professional societies, have drunk the Kool-Aid of sustainability for too long. They have hiked tuition and fees, raising student debt loads to dangerous and unprecedented levels, off-loaded teaching to an abused and disposable class of contingent adjunct faculty (a process now rapidly accelerating with the rise of online courses- aka MOOCs), and have resisted open access reform efforts to break the grip of monopolistic publishers. Sustainability justifies all of these moves. But the real cost of these sustainability efforts leaves a scorched-Earth impact on the public good, undermining the whole point and rationale for the existence of higher education and research societies in the first place.

Sustainability is really a political issue. It cannot be divorced from larger debates about privatization, public goods, wealth inequalities, and how and why we conduct research. Instead of simply accepting the ideology of privatizing and monetizing everything – the ideology that underlies many ideas of “sustainability” –  our professional societies should loudly highlight the inequities, risks, and real costs of our current publishing regime. If we can’t fund open access with available financing, we are under-supported. Our professional societies should use the issue of open access as the focus of capital campaigns and public policy efforts to support ethical practice in research and research dissemination.

It’s high time we get out of the ideological trap at the center of most debates about sustainability, and make a clear case that publication needs to reflect our scholarly values and our obligations to the public.

Eric Kansa blogs at Digging Digitally and and Tweets @ekansa.


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