On the “Myth” of Academic Freedom

In a recent post of the F1000 Blog, Rebecca Lawrence suggests that academic freedom is more myth than reality:

Academic freedom?

Other criticisms [of Plan S] focus on possible effects from the point of view of researchers as authors (rather than as readers and users of research) and the so called ‘academic freedom’ restrictions. But current ‘academic freedoms’ are somewhat of a myth, because the existing entrenched system of deciding on funding, promotions and tenure depends more on where you publish, than on what you publish and how your work has value to others. Hence, authors have to try to publish their work in the small subset of journals that are most likely to help their careers.

This scramble to publish the ‘best’ results in the ‘best’ journals causes many problems, including the high cost of such a selective process in these ‘high-impact’ journals, the repeated cost (both actual and time cost) of multiple resubmissions trying to find the ‘right place’ for the publication in the journal hierarchy, and the high opportunity cost.  This, combined with the high proportion of TA journals and the highly problematic growth of hybrid journals not only significantly increases cost, but compromises the goal of universal OA to research results – one of the greatest treasures the society can have and should expect.

We believe that if Plan S is implemented with the strong mandate it currently suggests, it will be a major step towards the goal of universal OA to research results and can greatly reduce overall costs in the scholarly communication system – which will itself bring benefits to researchers as authors and as users of research and indeed increase academic freedom.

I agree that the focus on where we publish rather than what we publish is detrimental to academia in all sorts of ways. When it comes to judging fellow academics’ publication records, too many use the journal title (the linguistic proxy for its impact factor) as a sufficient indicator of the quality of the article. What we should do, instead, is actually read the article. We should also reward academics for publishing in venues that are most likely to reach and impact their intended audiences and for writing in ways that are clearly understandable to non-specialists, when those non-specialists are the intended audience. Instead, we are often too quick to dismiss such publications as non-rigorous.

However, that academics evaluate each other in very messed up ways doesn’t show that academic freedom is a myth. What it shows is that academics aren’t always as thoughtful as we should be about how we exercise our academic freedom.

You're doing it wrong

I’ve never suggested that academic freedom means anything goes (or that you get to publish wherever you want, regardless of what the peer reviewers and editors say). What it does mean, though, is that, to a very large extent, we academics give ourselves the rules under which we operate, at least in terms of research and teaching. Again, I am not suggesting that anything goes. We still have to answer to laws about nepotism, corruption, sexual harassment, or murder. We’re not supposed to speed when we drive, ride our bicycles on the sidewalk, or lie on our taxes. I’m not even suggesting we are very wise about the rules we impose on ourselves.

In fact, I agree with Rebecca that the ways we evaluate each other are riddled with errors. But academic freedom means we have autonomy — give ourselves the law — when it comes to teaching and research. This freedom also comes with responsibilities: we need to teach on the topic of the course, for instance, not spend class time campaigning for our favorite politicians; we shouldn’t plagiarize or fabricate data; I even think we have a duty to try to ensure that our research has an impact on society.

Public funding bodies can obviously place restrictions on us about how we spend those funds. Maybe we’re not allowed to use grant funds to buy alcohol or take our significant others with us on research trips. Public funding bodies can decline to fund our research proposals. Academic freedom doesn’t say I’m entitled to a grant or that I get to spend the money on whatever I want when I get one.

But for public funding bodies to say that I have to publish my research under a CC-BY or equivalent license would cross the line and impinge on academic freedom. Telling me where and how to publish is something I let other academics do, because that’s consistent with academic freedom. I don’t always agree with their decisions. But the decisions of other academics are decisions we academics have to live with — or find a way to change. I want academics to change the rules about how we evaluate each other. Although it seems perfectly reasonable for funding bodies to lay out the rules for determining who gets grants and how money can be spent, I don’t want funding bodies dictating the rules about how we evaluate each other as part of the academic reward system, decisions about promotion, and such. Mandating a CC-BY license crosses that line into heteronomy.

 

What’s ‘unethical’ about Plan S?

In a recent blog post, my co-authors and I refer to Plan S as ‘unethical’. Doing so has upset Marc Schiltz, President of Science Europe.

Schiltz claims that disagreeing with some, or even many, aspects of Plan S does not in itself justify calling Plan S ‘unethical’. I completely agree. To justify calling Plan S ‘unethical’ would require more than simply disagreeing with some aspect of Plan S.

What more would be required? Calling Plan S ‘unethical’ would require an argument that shows that Plan S has violated some sort of ethical norm or crossed some sort of ethical line. Insofar as Plan S impinges on academic freedom, it has done just that.

Academic freedom is a contentious topic in and of itself, but particularly so when engaging in discussions about Open Access (OA). Part of the reason for the heightened tension surrounding academic freedom and OA is the perception that for-profit publishers have appealed to academic freedom to pummel OA advocates, portraying them as invaders of academics’ territory and themselves as defenders of academic freedom. As a result, anyone who appeals to academic freedom in an OA discussion runs the risk of being dismissed by OA advocates as an enemy in league with the publishers.

It’s also the case that academic freedom means different things in different contexts. In some countries, such as the UK and Germany, academic freedom is written into laws. In the US, the AAUP is the main source people use to define academic freedom. I’m a philosopher and an ethicist, not a lawyer. I’m also an American working at an American university, so my own conception of academic freedom is influenced by — but not exactly the same as — the AAUP definition. In short, I approach academic freedom as expressing an ethical norm of academia, rather than in terms of a legal framework. No doubt there are good reasons for such laws in different contexts; but academic freedom would be a thing — an ethical thing — even if there were no laws about it.

I won’t rehash the whole argument from our original post here. I direct interested parties to the sections of the blog under the sub-heading, “The problem of violating academic freedom.” If I had it to do over again, I would suggest to my coauthors altering some of the language in that section; but the bottom line remains the same — Plan S violates academic freedom. Insofar as Plan S violates academic freedom, it violates an ethical norm of academia. Hence, Plan S is unethical.

This is not to say that OA is unethical or necessarily violates academic freedom. I have argued in the past that OA need not violate academic freedom. In the recent flurry of discussion of Plan S on Twitter, Peter Suber pointed me to the carefully crafted Harvard OA policy’s answer to the academic freedom question. That policy meticulously avoids violating academic freedom (and would therefore count, for me, as an ethical OA policy).

To say that Plan S is unethical is simply to say that some aspects of it violate academic freedom. Some are an easy fix. Take, for instance, Principle #1.

Authors retain copyright of their publication with no
restrictions. All publications must be published under
an open license, preferably the Creative Commons
Attribution Licence CC BY. In all cases, the license
applied should fulfil the requirements defined by the
Berlin Declaration;

The violation of academic freedom in Principle #1 is contained in the last clause: “In all cases, the license applied should fulfil [sic] the requirements defined by the Berlin Declaration.” Because the Berlin Declaration actually requires an equivalent of the CC-BY license, that clause totally undermines the “preferably” in the previous clause. If Plan S merely expressed a strong preference for CC-BY or the equivalent, but allowed researchers to choose from among more restrictive licenses on a case by case basis, Principle #1 would not violate academic freedom. The simple fix is to remove the last clause of Principle #1.

Other issues are less easily fixed. In particular, I have in mind Schiltz’s Preamble to Plan S. There, Schiltz argues as follows.

We recognise that researchers need to be given a maximum
of freedom to choose the proper venue for publishing
their results and that in some jurisdictions this freedom
may be covered by a legal or constitutional protection.
However, our collective duty of care is for the science system
as a whole, and researchers must realise that they are
doing a gross disservice to the institution of science if they
continue to report their outcomes in publications that will
be locked behind paywalls.

I won’t rehash here the same argument my co-authors and I put forth in our initial blog post. Instead, I have a couple of other things to say here about Schiltz’s position, as expressed in this quote.

First, I have absolutely no objection on academic freedom grounds to making all of my research freely available (gratis) and removing paywalls. I agree that researchers have a duty to make their work freely available, if possible. Insofar as Plan S allows researchers to retain their copyrights and enables gratis OA, it’s a good thing, even an enhancer of academic freedom. The sticking point is mandating a CC-BY or equivalent license, which unethically limits the freedom of academics to choose from a broad range of possible licenses (libre is not a single license, but a range of possible ones). Fix Principle #1, and this particular violation of academic freedom disappears.

Second, there’s a trickier issue concerning individual freedom and group obligations. I discussed the issue in greater detail here. But the crux of the matter is that Schiltz here displays a marked preference for the rights of the group (or even of the impersonal “science system as a whole”) over the rights of individual members of the group. That position may be ethically defensible, but Schiltz here simply asserts that the duty to science overrides concerns for academic freedom. Simply asserting that one duty trumps another does a good job of communicating where someone stands on the issue. However, it provides absolutely no support for their position.

Insofar as Plan S is designed on the basis of an undefended assertion that our collective duty to the science system as a whole outweighs our right as individuals to academic freedom, Plan S impinges on academic freedom. In doing so, Plan S violates an ethical norm of academia. Therefore, Plan S, as written, is unethical.

Tools for Serendipity: SHERPA/RoMEO

I really want to post a pre-print of my recently published article in the Journal of Responsible Innovation: “Designing Responsible Research and Innovation as a tool to encourage serendipity could enhance the broader societal impacts of research.” Here’s a link to the published version. One thing about this article that would be obvious if one were to compare the pre-print to the final published version is just how much the latter was improved by peer review and input from the journal editor.

Since I still don’t have an institutional repository at NJIT, I could post it at Humanities Commons. Before I do that, I want to make sure I don’t get sideways with Taylor and Francis. So, the prudent thing to do is to check with SHERPA/RoMEO to see what the journal policies are. The problem, however, is that SHERPA/RoMEO hasn’t yet ‘graded’ JRI, so they don’t tell me what the policies are. This is all sort of understandable, since JRI is still a relatively new journal. Searching an older journal put out by the same publisher, Social Epistemology, tells me that I could post both pre-prints and post-prints — that is, my version, but not the actual publisher’s PDF, of the article after it went through peer review — of articles I published there. So, maybe I could go ahead, assuming that Taylor and Francis policy is consistent across all their journals. Instead, I requested that SHERPA/RoMEO grade JRI.

I can wait a while to post the pre-print, and I want to gauge how long it takes to get a grade. I’m also waiting to find out how long it takes for JRI to show up in Scopus (their main ‘about‘ page says they are indexed in Scopus, but it hasn’t shown up in Scopus, yet).  I’ve also been told that NJIT is getting bepress soon.

All of these — Humanities Commons, SHERPA/RoMEO, bepress — are tools for serendipity in the sense in which I outline the term in this article. As soon as I can let everyone see it, I will!

 

 

PLOS Biology: Expert Failure: Re-evaluating Research Assessment

Do what you can today; help disrupt and redesign the scientific norms around how we assess, search, and filter science.

via PLOS Biology: Expert Failure: Re-evaluating Research Assessment.

You know, I’m generally in favor of this idea — at least of the idea that we ought to redesign our assessment of research (science in the broad sense). But, as one might expect when speaking of design, the devil is in the details. It would be disastrous, for instance, to throw the baby of peer review out with the bathwater of bias.

I touch on the issue of bias in peer review in this article (coauthored with Steven Hrotic). I suggest that attacks on peer review are attacks on one of the biggest safeguards of academic autonomy here (coauthored with Robert Frodeman). On the relation between peer review and the values of autonomy and accountability, see: J. Britt Holbrook (2010). “Peer Review,” in The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, Robert Frodeman, Julie Thompson Klein, Carl Mitcham, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 321-32 and J. Britt Holbrook (2012). “Re-assessing the science – society relation: The case of the US National Science Foundation’s broader impacts merit review criterion (1997 – 2011),” in Peer Review, Research Integrity, and the Governance of Science – Practice, Theory, and Current Discussions. Robert Frodeman, J. Britt Holbrook, Carl Mitcham, and Hong Xiaonan. Beijing: People’s Publishing House: 328 – 62. 

Funny Stuff — but also Serious — from Michael Eisen on the Science OA Sting

This post really starts off well:

My sting exposed the seedy underside of “subscription-based” scholarly publishing, where some journals routinely lower their standards – in this case by sending the paper to reviewers they knew would be sympathetic – in order to pump up their impact factor and increase subscription revenue. Maybe there are journals out there who do subscription-based publishing right – but my experience should serve as a warning to people thinking about submitting their work to Science and other journals like it.  – See more at: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1439#sthash.7amnYjlK.dpuf

But I question what Eisen suggests is the take home lesson of the Science sting:

But the real story is that a fair number of journals who actually carried out peer review still accepted the paper, and the lesson people should take home from this story not that open access is bad, but that peer review is a joke. – See more at: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1439#sthash.7amnYjlK.dpuf

I think that message is even more dangerous than the claim that open access journals are inherently lower quality than traditional journals.

Open Access at Georgia Tech

As you may have heard, at Georgia Tech, we are doing that. ‘That’, for the purposes of this post, refers to Open Access (OA). Here’s what’s happening on campus during Open Access Week.

Stay tuned for even more activities. Professor Diana Hicks and I will both be interviewed for the Georgia Tech Libraries radio show, Lost in the Stacks. And if my students keep inspiring me, I’ll have even more to say about the matter.

Steal This Research Paper! (You Already Paid for It.) | Mother Jones

This is an interesting read on the Open Access movement. Here’s the conclusion, with a quote from Michael Eisen that provides some food for thought.

In the end, his disdain isn’t directed at the publishers who hoard scientific knowledge so much as at his colleagues who let them get away with it. “One of the reasons advances in publishing don’t happen is that people are willing to live with all sorts of crap from journals in order to get the imprimatur the journal title has as a measure of the impact of their work,” Eisen says. “It’s easy to blame Elsevier, right? To think that there’s some big corporation that’s preventing scientists from doing the right thing. It’s just bullshit. Elsevier doesn’t prevent anyone from doing anything. Scientists do this themselves!”

via Steal This Research Paper! (You Already Paid for It.) | Mother Jones.