On Open Access, Academic Freedom, and Science Policy — A Reply to Suber

I have argued that Plan S, if we were to take the 10 principles as currently written as policy, would impinge on academic freedom. It’s interesting who dismisses this claim out of hand and who actually responds to my argument, even if they disagree with me. I think Peter Suber is a member of the latter camp, even if his responses have not been as long and involved as my exchanges with Stephen Curry.

In what follows, I try to reconstruct Suber’s position on academic freedom and Open Access (OA), to go a bit further in my various attempts at defining academic freedom, and to argue more fully, pace Suber, that Plan S does impinge on academic freedom.

This reply struck me as odd, given Suber’s position on whether university OA mandates impinge on academic freedom:

6) Open access mandates infringe academic freedom

This is true for gold open access but not for green. But if you believe that all open access is gold, then this myth follows as a lemma. Because only about one-third of peer-reviewed journals are open access, requiring researchers to submit new work to open access journals would severely limit their freedom to submit work to the journals of their choice. By contrast, green open access is compatible with publishing in non-open access journals, which means that green open access mandates can respect author freedom to publish where they please. That is why literally all university open access mandates are green, not gold. It’s also why the green/gold distinction is significant, not fussy, and why myths suppressing recognition of green open access are harmful, not merely false.

To be clear, Suber is arguing that the claim that OA mandates infringe academic freedom is a myth. The myth would hold as reality, for Suber, only if such policies mandated publication in Gold (journal) venues. Insofar as such policies mandate Green OA (depositing some version of a published work in an institutional repository), they “respect author freedom to publish where they please.” I think it’s safe to say that Suber — at least the Suber of five years ago — held that author freedom to publish where they please is an aspect of academic freedom.

Since Plan S does restrict options for authors regarding where they publish, it seems like Suber ought to conclude that Plan S impinges on academic freedom. But he doesn’t; so, there must be more to the story.

It’s possible Suber changed his mind that freedom to choose their publication venue is part of academic freedom. I don’t think this is the case, though. Here’s more of our Twitter exchange:

So, the relevant principles to which Suber referred me a week ago are as follows:

2.  Universities should not limit the freedom of faculty to submit their work to the journals of their choice.

2.1.  If it weren’t for Principle 2, universities could require faculty to submit their articles to OA journals rather than deposit them in an OA repository (a gold OA mandate rather than a green OA mandate).  But there aren’t yet enough OA journals; there aren’t yet first-rate OA journals in every research niche; and even one day when there are, a university policy to rule out submission to a journal based solely on its business model would needlessly limit faculty freedom.  Not even the urgent need for OA justifies that kind of restriction, as long as we can achieve OA through OA repositories.  That’s why all university and funder OA mandates focus on green OA (through OA repositories) rather than gold OA (through OA journals).

But of course OA journals still deserve support.  See Principle 3.

2.2.  If annotation 2.1 doesn’t stand on its own, it may be because it presupposes another premise.  As I put it elsewhere:  “The purpose of the campaign for OA is the constructive one of providing OA to a larger and larger body of literature, not the destructive one of putting non-OA journals or publishers out of business. The consequences may or may not overlap (this is contingent), but the purposes do not overlap.”

2.3.  If it weren’t for Principle 2, universities could require faculty to deposit some version of their peer-reviewed journal articles in the IR, for OA, with or without an embargo, and faculty would have to avoid journals that did not allow OA archiving on those terms.  But that would needlessly limit faculty freedom to submit to the journals of their choice.  To respect faculty freedom, universities must allow exemptions (waivers, opt-outs) for faculty submitting to journals that do not allow OA archiving on the university’s terms.  However, when enough universities adopt OA mandates, then all journals would have to accommodate them, and therefore the first type of policy (no opt-outs) would no longer limit faculty freedom or violate Principle 2.  But until we approach that point, Principle 2 requires the second type of policy (with opt-outs).  Moreover, allowing an opt-out on OA is compatible with not allowing an opt-out on IR deposits themselves.  See the Appendix for more detail.

2.4.  The strategy to require OA archiving, and to require researchers to avoid publishers that will not allow it, was pioneered by the Wellcome Trust.  The WT’s example has been followed by some other funding agencies, most notably the UK Medical Research Council and the US National Institutes of Health.  Because I support these policies, as well as annotation 2.3, I should therefore point out that Principle 2 is designed for universities, not funding agencies.  Funding agencies are essentially charities, spending money on research because it is in the public interest.  They have an interest in making that research as useful and widely available as possible, and virtually no competing interests.  Universities have the same charitable purpose but many competing interests, such as nurturing researchers more than research projects, nurturing them over their entire careers, and erecting bulwarks of policy and custom to protect academic freedom.

2.5.  If we hasten the day when all or most journals allow postprint archiving, then we hasten the day when universities could adopt no-opt-out OA policies (as opposed to both no-opt-out deposit policies and opt-out OA policies) without violating Principle 2.  One way to do that is for universities to demand the right for postprint archiving when negotiating licensing terms for subscription or renewal.  OhioLink publicly committed itself to this strategy in 2006, the only library consortium I know to do so.  (OhioLink is a consortium of 86 academic libraries in Ohio representing more than 600,000 faculty, students, and staff.)  Several major universities are also trying this strategy, but so far without a public announcement.  Public or private, I recommend that all universities do what they can to negotiate better terms for their authors, not just better terms for their readers.

I included all of the annotations of principle 2, since I think all are relevant to this discussion. But one thing is clear: the Peter Suber of 10 years ago (author of the principles), 5 years ago (the mythbuster), and one week ago (on Twitter) agree that restricting a researcher’s choice of publication venue would impinge on academic freedom.

So, why would Plan S not impinge on academic freedom, according to Suber? There are actually two answers. One is contained in 2.4, above: “Principle 2 is designed for universities, not funding agencies.” I will get into the details of Suber’s argument for separating universities and funding agencies in a moment. But the bottom line is that Suber here allows funding agencies to adopt policies that would, were those policies adopted by universities, impinge on academic freedom.

Second, Suber holds that although the freedom to choose venue of publication should not be restricted by university policies on pain of impinging on academic freedom, freedom to choose venue of publication is not all there is to academic freedom.

So, although Plan S impinges on researchers’ free choice of publication venue, it does not infringe on what Suber calls the heart of academic freedom: to pursue the truth in teaching and research free from reprisals other than disagreement among academic peers.

I agreed with Suber on Twitter that, if we limit academic freedom to this “heart” definition, then Plan S does not impinge upon it. But what is the argument for limiting our definition of academic freedom in this way? Or does Suber want to say that Plan S infringes on academic freedom, but only at the margins (not the heart)? If the former, I still want to see an argument. If the latter, then why should universities be restricted from infringing on the ‘marginal’ freedom of researchers to choose the venue where they submit manuscripts for publication?

Suber offers a few reasons for thinking that his Principle 2 should apply to universities but not to funding agencies. The first is the claim that, “Funding agencies are essentially charities, spending money on research because it is in the public interest.” Because they are charities, Suber holds, “They have an interest in making that research as useful and widely available as possible, and virtually no competing interests.” Universities, on the other hand, “have the same charitable purpose but many competing interests, such as nurturing researchers more than research projects, nurturing them over their entire careers, and erecting bulwarks of policy and custom to protect academic freedom.” This is a really interesting comparison; but I’m not convinced.

I’m especially not convinced that universities and funding agencies have the same goals, but that the university has ‘competing interests’ that call into question its commitment to those goals. Maybe the idea here is that universities are more invested in individual researchers and therefore need to erect barriers against societal interference? So, perhaps Suber holds that funding agencies are freer to pursue the goal of benefiting society, since agencies don’t have to worry as much about individual researchers? Although I grant that funding agencies and universities play different roles in knowledge production, I don’t think it’s quite right to suggest that they both charitably aimed at the public good, but that universities also have to prioritize the special interests of their faculty, which sometimes gets in the way of their charitable aims.

But let’s run with the idea for a moment and suppose that, where funding agencies are charitable organizations, universities are philanthropic organizations. The difference is that charities provide somewhat more immediate — and one-off — relief for particular individuals suffering from particular problems, while philanthropic organizations take a longer view and try to address underlying issues and attend to systemic causes of problems. Where charities offer tactical interventions to alleviate instances of suffering (providing food or clothing, say, like the Salvation Army), philanthropic organizations are strategic, aiming to eliminate suffering from a particular cause tout court (ending poverty, like the Gates Foundation).

On this interpretation, funding agencies provide grants to benefit individual researchers or research teams, but universities nurture the research enterprise as a whole.

As intriguing as such a comparison might be, it breaks down in various ways. First, charitable organizations don’t give their charity in the expectation of an immediate return on their investment. They might give you food to alleviate your hunger; but they don’t then turn around and say, OK, now that you’ve had your breakfast, what are you going to do for society? Funding agencies do, however, often ask researchers for returns on their investment. I think that’s justified. But that’s because public research funding agencies are not charities. There’s a real difference between the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Distribution Programs and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The latter funds research on food, while the former distributes food. Since it’s obvious that public money used for research might be used for other purposes, there is a necessity for public funding agencies to make a case for their benefits to society (aka ‘broader impacts’). I agree that OA policies should be part of that case; but not in ways that hinder rather than empower researchers.

Second, it’s far from clear that funding agencies don’t also try to nurture researchers, sometimes over their whole careers, and that they don’t try to erect “bulwarks of policy and custom” to protect academic freedom. Many researchers experience continuous, career-long support for their research. Agencies even try to nurture early career researchers in their efforts to establish themselves. And there is no greater bulwark of policy than the process of peer review of grant proposals (Holbrook 2017, Baldwin 2018).

I grant that there is a difference in the roles played by funding agencies and universities; but the difference between them is not one that supports the idea that funding agencies can infringe on academic freedom in ways universities cannot (Suber’s principle 2.4). If anything, funding agencies have to be more careful than universities about infringing on academic freedom.

Here I want to invoke something that Robert Post said, and which I think is vital to this conversation: “The most basic point about academic freedom is that I, as a professor, can only be judged by my peers.” This claim expresses the same intuition underlying my earlier appeals to academic norms as key to academic freedom, since it’s about us academics giving ourselves the law (it’s a matter of autonomy). Existing academic norms support the idea that academics should be able to choose the venues to which they submit manuscripts for publication.

For me, this is  the key difference between university OA policies and funder mandates. The former — like the policy at Harvard — have been voted on by the faculty. Insofar as it comes from the funders, rather than being voted on by the faculty at universities, Plan S would be an ‘outside’ imposition. If waivers to university policies are essential in order for the university to avoid infringing on academic freedom, they are even more necessary in the case of funding agency OA mandates. Suber’s Principle 2 should apply to funding agencies, as well.

Philosophy and Science Policy: A Report from the Field I

I’m actually going to give a series of reports from the field, including a chapter in a book on Field Philosophy that I’m revising now in light of editor/reviewer comments. In the chapter, I discuss our Comparative Assessment of Peer Review project. For a brief account of Field Philosophy, see the preprint of a manuscript I co-authored with Diana Hicks. That’s also being revised now.

Today, however, I will be focusing on more pressing current events having to do with Plan S. So, I will give a talk at the NJIT Department of Humanities Fall Colloquium Series to try to let my colleagues know what I’ve been up to recently. Here are the slides.

As a philosopher, my approach is not simply to offer an objective ‘report’. Instead, I will be offering an argument.

If we want to encourage academic flourishing, then we need new ways of evaluating academic research. We want to encourage academic flourishing. Therefore, we need new ways of evaluating academic research.

Of course, the argument also refers to my own activities. I want my department to understand and value my forays into the field of science policy. But that will mean revaluing the way I am currently evaluated (which is along fairly standard lines).

Mr. Smits Goes to Washington

News article just published today in Nature.

On Academic Freedom and Responsibility

Today, Stephen Curry published a piece on his blog on “Academic freedom and responsibility: why Plan S is not unethical,” and I want to offer a response to some of his arguments here.

The first thing to say is that I think Curry and I agree on quite a few points. We especially agree that to speak of academic freedom means we should also to speak of academic responsibility. For six years (2012-2018), I was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. I fully support the AAAS Statement on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, which the Committee co-authored:

Scientific freedom and scientific responsibility are essential to the advancement of human knowledge for the benefit of all. Scientific freedom is the freedom to engage in scientific inquiry, pursue and apply knowledge, and communicate openly. This freedom is inextricably linked to and must be exercised in accordance with scientific responsibility. Scientific responsibility is the duty to conduct and apply science with integrity, in the interest of humanity, in a spirit of stewardship for the environment, and with respect for human rights.

In particular, the Statement clearly expresses the key point that freedom and responsibility are inextricably linked, such that freedom must be exercised in accordance with responsibility. The same applies to academic freedom more generally. I am very much opposed to the idea that, under the rubric of academic freedom, anything goes!

Another point of agreement with Curry is that Plan S presents an opportunity for us to discuss our academic freedom and responsibility.  I thank him for not simply dismissing concerns about academic freedom and for engaging in conversation! I only wish more of our fellow academics would be so willing to engage.

I think we also agree that the main point of disagreement between us is how best to balance our academic freedom and academic responsibility. I think it would be fair to say that, prima facie, I favor limiting academic freedom less than Curry does; or, perhaps, that he favors a more restrictive scope for academic freedom than I do; or maybe that he would draw the line between freedom and responsibility differently from how I would. So, the locus of the discussion is here.

Now, to turn to the details of Curry’s post. Based on conversations on Twitter today, I don’t think it’s necessary to spend too much time on this first point; but we can always revisit it, if I’m wrong. Curry’s initial argument against the academic freedom arguments made by my colleagues and me is that they rest on shaky foundations. In particular, Curry hones in on the claim that the freedom to publish in venues of our choice is fundamental to academic freedom, writing:

If we are to properly debate the question of whether choice of publication venue is a “basic tenet” of academic freedom, we need an evidence base of some sort.

Noting that we failed to provide a citation for this claim, Curry seeks evidence in various statements on academic freedom. He finds some evidence in a publisher’s statement, but then notes that a publisher has a vested interest. He finds no evidence in the Wikipedia entry on academic freedom. He finds some evidence in the AAUP 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom, which calls for “full freedom in research and in the publication of results;” but he argues that this call is vague and does not specifically mention freedom of venue in which to publish. (As for the bit about “pecuniary return,” I’m pretty sure that applies to patents or to publications that might produce royalties — so, if I do some research to make money, not if I get a grant, from which I don’t profit financially.) Curry then proceeds to search for evidence in a 1997 UNESCO statement on academic freedom that says: “Higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice.” Curry then goes on to examine the UNESCO document more fully and concludes (his emphasis):

The preamble and principles put a clear emphasis on academic freedom as a freedom from undue political interference in the questions that academics may ask and write about, and it is this concern that seems uppermost in their minds when they write about the freedom to publish.

This is important, since the discussion today on Twitter between Curry and Richard Poynder turned on precisely whether UNESCO had a negative view of academic freedom (freedom from interference, as Curry argued) or a positive view (freedom to publish in venue of choice, as Poynder argued). I discuss this distinction between negative and positive views on academic freedom in greater detail here; but I think this difference underlies a lot of the disagreements about the topic.

The bottom line of Curry’s attempts to find “evidence” for the claim that the right to choose where to publish is fundamental to academic freedom is that he could not find any that would provide unequivocal support. For that reason, he concludes that the claim rests on shaky foundations.

My response may sound odd, since it is a claim I was a party to that is under attack. But I hold that, even if all the sources Curry explored agreed explicitly with the claim that choice of publication venue is vital to academic freedom, that would not provide unequivocal support for the claim. UNESCO’s recommendations don’t have the force of international law; AAUP cannot impose its definition on anyone; Wikipedia is good, but it’s not that good; and, yes, the publishers have a vested interest.

However, that these organizations don’t provide unequivocal support for the claim doesn’t show that the claim rests on shaky foundations; these sources were never meant to serve as foundations for the claim. As I said in an earlier post,

Academic freedom would be a thing — an ethical thing — even if there were no laws about it.

So, the first point of disagreement between Curry and me concerns what would constitute evidence for the claim that choice of venue of publication is fundamental to academic freedom.  I think the fact that academics normally expect to be able to choose the venue of publication for their research supports the claim that choice of venue is a fundamental aspect of academic freedom better than any of these definitions examined by Curry (even had they provided unequivocal statements in favor of choice of venue). Michael J. Barany tweeted something today that I haven’t had a chance to read, yet, that may force me to reexamine this claim:

Until I do read it, though, I think that the academic norms with which I’m familiar with regard to venue of publication support the claim that being able to submit a manuscript to the venue of your choice is a normal expectation for an academic. Moreover, I think that academic norms provide at least prima facie support for  claims about academic freedom in general. Can academic norms be questioned? Of course! I’ve argued for years now that academics receiving public funding for their research have a duty to the public to try to ensure that their research will have broader societal impacts. For quite a while, academics wanted to insist they didn’t have such a duty. So, my approach was to try to engage academics in a discussion on the topic. This, I take it, is also the approach Curry is taking with regard to Plan S.

So, based on my knowledge (which is, of course, limited) of academic norms, I would say academics have the following expectations that all fall under the rubric of academic freedom:

  • Subject to the needs of the department, and provided I don’t veer wildly off course or just keep repeating the same things every class, I get to teach what I want.
  • I get to pick my own research topics, I get to pick my own research approach, I get to write what I want to write, how I want to write it, and submit it where I want for publication.
  • I get to have political opinions and state them publicly, as long as I make clear I am not speaking on behalf of my employer.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s one I think most academics would look at and say, yeah, that’s about right.

Note that the list already includes some limitations that would also fall under academic responsibility (to the department and to the university). I think there are others, including:

  • I should conduct all of my research and teaching with integrity and respect for others.
  • I should (at a bare minimum) follow all the tenets of what’s known as Responsible Conduct of Research (no plagiarism, falsification, fabrication, etc.).
  • I should put as much effort into teaching as I do into research, trying to integrate them whenever possible.
  • I should try to mentor junior colleagues.
  • I should exhibit collegiality with all my colleagues.
  • I should participate in creating a culture that precludes racial, gender, and sexual harassment.
  • I should try to ensure that my research and teaching have (positive) broader impacts on society.
  • I should help students who want to have positive broader impacts on society.
  • I should try to engage members of society, rather than staying cloistered in my university.

I expect less agreement on this list of responsibilities. But I do agree with Curry that discussing our freedoms and responsibilities is a really good way to continue the discussion.