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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 18 Number 1, 2008

Access to Research *

Joseph A. DeVito
Hunter College of the City University of New York

Abstract: That many academic associations, (including NCA, the National Communication Association) are partnering with publishing houses to print and market scholarly journals has advantages, including consistent editing, article digitization and adding meta-tags, and registering the digital object identification. However, there are potential downsides to exclusive partnering arrangements: for the field of study, for authors, for students and researchers, and for ready availability of information in the article. The author suggests that with online journal subscriptions becoming more prevalent (compared with print subscriptions), there may be profitable alternative ways to make research available.

The decision by many academic associations, including NCA (National Communication Association), to partner with large publishing houses to print and market their journals has many advantages. Taylor & Francis—the publisher of NCA’s journals—identifies some of these in its position statement on copyright and author rights (www.Taylor&Francis.com). It provides for editing in a consistent style, digitizes the articles, includes meta-tags so that the research may be abstracted and indexed, registers the digital object identifier, and monitors electronic use of the research article. “In all our activities,” notes the T&F website, “we are working for the benefit of authors to ensure maximum access to and use of their articles, and to ensure that authors may gain from the goodwill associated with publishing in a Taylor & Francis journal. Yet, we are also seeking to enhance the reputation and prestige of the Journal, its editors and editorial board, its peer review processes, and the added value brought by the journal and its publisher.”

In addition, my understanding is that Taylor & Francis pays a fee to the professional association that publishes the journals, which the association can then use at its discretion, ideally perhaps to improve member services or to keep membership costs low. (I have no idea what amount of money, if any, was paid to NCA, nor do I know what NCA did with the money, if, indeed, NCA did receive any money).

These advantages are important but may not fully justify this exclusive partnership. And some of these “advantages” may not be advantages at all. There may be a down side that should also be considered. Specifically, such exclusive partnering may not be in the best interests of (1) the field, (2) the authors of the articles, or (3) students and researchers trying to access this material. (4) Nor does it seem consistent with the notion that information should be available to all without consideration of financial resources. Let’s consider these potential downsides in order.

Potential Downsides for the Field

This partnering may not be in the best interests of the field of communication. If a major purpose of research publication is its dissemination throughout the academic community as well as the general population, then charging fees for access to the full-text article will clearly work against that purpose.

The aim of a professional organization such as NCA should be to get its research and theory out to others. Other things being equal, the fewer the restrictions, the more widely the material will likely be used. Since the value of a discipline and the importance of its academic journals are measured, at least in part, by how often its theory and research are referenced, it seems only logical to make this research more, not less, readily available. This is even more important for Communication which has so often been called upon to defend its status as a discipline and its academic integrity.

The counter-argument to this is that this partnering actually increases the likelihood that NCA journal articles will be cited. The people who count, that is, professors and students—the argument continues—already have access to these articles (paid for by their colleges). In addition to this argument being obviously ethnocentric (after all, they’re really talking about American professors and students), it seems seriously lacking in supporting evidence. But, more important, before even considering the validity of this argument, it’s necessary to first examine the alternatives and compare them to the current system. My argument is that these alternatives have not been explored as fully as they should have been and should be now. And because of this, we really can’t determine if the current system is best serving the purposes of NCA members.

Another way in which this pay-for-research can hurt the field of communication (or any academic discipline) is that is can easily lead to a deterioration in the quality of academic publishing. The scenario would go something like this: With the increased profitability of journal publishing, it’s logical to expect that an increased number of journals will be published. And these journals will have to publish the best they receive which—as their number proliferates—will be of increasingly poorer quality. So, as the number of journals increases, the qualities of the individual articles goes down; great increases in the numbers of journals will mean great decreases in the qualities of the published articles. Nevertheless, colleges and libraries will be forced to purchase these journals with the result that even more journals will be published. The problem with this system is not that it results in the increase in professional journals, but rather that it places the decision on the number of journals to be published in a given field into the hands of the profit-motivated publisher and not by the academically-motivated professional association. This is not to say that any given publisher would necessarily increase journal production to these unhealthy and ultimately self-defeating limits, but the fact that it can do this is scary. And, since it is a for-profit organization and if it seeks to make a profit (and to increase profits over time), it’s likely that journals will be increased to the point where decidedly poor articles will [have to] be published. Not only will this make it more and more difficult to find materials you’re looking for, it will damage the credibility of the journal, the author’s who published in the journal, and the field itself. The process would be slow but inevitable.

One might argue that an increase in the number of journals will make it easier to get published and hence get tenure and promotion. This is only partly true. Surely, with increased journals, the likelihood of getting published increases but so will the likelihood for everyone else. The increased number of journals just raises the number of articles people will be expected to have to get hired, promoted, or tenured. (Whether or not NCA and the field of communication generally has enough journals so that its members are on parity with those in psychology, chemistry, English, and so on is really another and totally separate issue.)

If the number of journals is increased as predicted, the increase will necessitate a clearer statement of what constitutes a respectable journal—some of our journals will make it and some won’t. Some, certainly, would be in so low a tier that articles published in them would count for little. Further, articles published in such journals are likely to acquire a negative reputation. So, even excellent articles published in such journals will suffer the fate of being classified as second-rate. It is a system that is likely to make colleges look good to non-academics and to students who don’t know the relative merit of different journals. All they will see are long lists of articles, all of which will look most impressive.

Even if the professional organization maintains nominal control over the number of new journals to be created (and I have no idea which organizations do and which don’t—if any), the publisher is likely to maintain ultimate control since it would be in a position to raise existing rates on existing journals to the point where it would be more profitable for the association to publish another journal title.

With increased sophistication in technology, the cost of journal publishing will decrease but the publishers’ ability to demand significant increases in payment will increase. This is especially true as these publishers become virtual monopolies in specific fields. And, of course, this benefits no one but the publisher.

There are currently some good examples of free access to research in communication. One very good one and one that seems worthy of imitating is James McCroskey’s website which includes 43 communication research measures that “may be used for research or instructional purposes with no individualized permission. There is no cost for this use” (http://jamescmccroskey.com/measures/). Other examples include the journals Human Communication, Journal of Global Mass Communication, Russian Journal of Communication, Journal of Health & Mass Communication, Journal of Media Law & Ethics, and Journal of Communication Studies.Not only will these journals allow authors to retain the copyright of their article, but the journals will be open access, available electronically at no charge to the public.

NCA’s new online journal, Communication Currents (www.communicationcurrents.com), is another good example of free access to research.  But, it’s simply not enough, especially for an organization as large and as prestigious as NCA. In fact, after Goggling communication terms and concepts almost every day for hours each day since the advent of this new online journal, Communication Currents did not show up once in the thousands of websites examined. And while my experience may not be typical, most members would agree, I think, that one online journal covering popular topics is surely not enough for a national organization and its affiliated organizations that together publish 20 or so journals and hundreds of research articles each year.

Potential Downsides for the Authors of the Articles

This partnering may not be in the best interests of authors and researchers. Authors of the articles who want their research cited widely will suffer because fewer people will be willing to pay and go through the registration process for access to the research. It’s often easier to move on, avoid the annoying and costly paywalls, and find articles that are available in full text right there on the computer screen.

The same is true for reprinting articles or portions of articles from journals published under these restrictions. Recently, for example, I wanted to reprint five statements (a total of 52 words) that appeared as a measure of apprehension in the employment interview from a 1993 article in Communication Research Reports by Ayres, Ayres, and Sharp. Taylor & Francis, the journal’s publisher, wanted a fee of $638. Since the book was to be made available free with the purchase of other books, it did not have a budget that could support this kind of permission fee, and so the piece was deleted from the manuscript. I suspect (though I have no evidence) that the authors of the research were never consulted and had no say in the price Taylor & Francis put on their work or even of the request to reprint their material.

This practice of charging such high rates can seriously damage new scholarly books or textbooks or their revisions. For example, if an author contemplates doing a reader—traditionally a book with a small audience and hence a small permission budget and yet a type of book that is crucial to small and emerging areas within communication—but the most relevant articles are from NCA publications and are too expensive, the alternatives are, unfortunately, to not use NCA articles or to cancel the proposed text. It’s a situation where no one wins.

Of course, having research reprinted in a textbook is certainly not a researcher’s major goal, nor should it be; but, it seems a nice bonus for researchers to know that their work is being read by students as well as by colleagues using the text.

Professional organizations like NCA do, I understand, maintain certain rights and can, in some cases, override these permission fees; yet, the control is still largely in the hands of the journal owners, not the author. For example, I, a not unseasoned author, didn’t know that I could have appealed the $638 fee to NCA. And anyway, this kind of appeal is simply not in the organizational system; permission editors wouldn’t know that they could do this. Further, and most important, it would just make work for NCA’s National Office which has more important business.

According to CNNMoney.com (October 20, 2006) 92 percent of the searches are through Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, or Ask.com (“Google: Next Stop $500?” by Paul LaMonica, published October 20, 2006 at http://money.cnn.com/2006/10/19/technology/google_earnings/index.htm; last accessed October 20, 2006). This means that at least 92 percent of all Internet searches would not yield one full-text NCA article without hitting a paywall.

Authors should also consider the consequences of putting their research into another’s hands. For example, there are a number of restrictions identified on the Taylor & Francis website—not an easy read, btw, and so this is my interpretation—in a statement oddly called “the rights that you retain as author” (www.Taylor&Francis.com). For example, if you published an article in an NCA journal partnered with Taylor & Francis you would not be able to post your own published article on your own website or blog for a period of 12 to 18 months after publication. You would also be restricted from including your article in a dissertation if the dissertation is to be published commercially. At least this is what I get from reading the website; authors should naturally check for themselves and not rely on this abbreviated account.

NCA’s partnering with one publisher (in this case, Taylor & Francis) hands this publisher a virtual monopoly on communication research which is probably not in the best interests of the field. It’s also not clear, to me at least (one with no legal expertise at all), how this differs from what I understand to be the recent situation in which Wadsworth was encouraged by the Department of Justice to divest itself of certain communication textbooks, lest they be found in  violation of DOJ regulations regarding monopoly in interpersonal and human communication.

For good or ill, the current academic system requires the vast majority of academics to publish in the field’s journals. They have no choice but to offer their work free of charge to a publisher and to agree to turn control of that research study over to the publisher that will then earn income from selling access to the research study. But, while the individual researcher has no choice, academic associations do. NCA, for example, has the choice to partner with these publishers and thus restrict the work of its own members to those who will pay for it or grant wider access and in fact encourage greater access to our research and theory.

And while it may be argued that the interests of national academic associations are consistent with the interests of their members, this may not be true in all cases and certainly seems questionable here. The young assistant professor is not interested in how much money the associations make but with the access that others will have to his or her research so that it might get cited widely and thus help secure promotion or tenure.

Potential Downsides for Students and Researchers

This partnering may not be in the best interests of students and researchers trying to access communication research. One of the reasons why access to these articles is of little concern to most professionals in communication or in any other academic field in the United States (and perhaps why so few people I’ve contacted actually know the terms of these agreements) is that we, as already noted, have access to these research databases through our college libraries. Similarly, students in most colleges in the United States have access through their college libraries. But, not everyone is so fortunate. Independent writers and researchers, for example, who are not associated with colleges that pay for access, will likely not have the financial resources to purchase the articles themselves. One of my former students and sometime communication instructor is perhaps typical of many; she has no access to full length articles—“the costs are high,” she writes, “and certainly not in the budget of a retiree.” Again, everyone loses in this situation—the retiree wanting to conduct her research and make a contribution as well as those who would learn from her research.

As a result of these costs, such people are likely to rely on the abstracts (which are generally available without charge) or on the more general (and much less authoritative) articles that are available on blogs and commercial websites. These articles—many of which are ill-informed, overly general, and often lacking any ethical foundation—will come to define the field of communication to the general population and to the non-communication professional unless we supplement (or even supplant) these with the solid research and theory studies that NCA’s journals publish regularly and that are easily and inexpensively available (or free). If you have a Google alert on “nonverbal communication” or regularly search the web for this topic, you’d see a perfect example of this. Just about every day and sometimes more than once a day, articles report that 93% of our meaning is communicated nonverbally (a conclusion that comes from a misinterpretation of research findings by Albert Mehrabian and his widely read 1968 article, “Communication without Words,” in Psychology Today, 2 (9), 52-55 ). This is not the kind of disinformation that communication professionals should want disseminated. Yet, we are actively supporting a system that makes this type of information readily available (and hence easily cited) but our research and theory available only after paying a fee. So, while our (NCA and its members) objective is to disseminate well-tested principles of communication (among other functions), we are actually helping to create a situation where much less reliable information becomes more readily available and more likely believed and acted upon.

Colleges pay for the databases to which their students are given access. And many textbook publishers also pay for the databases that they offer with their textbooks—Research Navigator at Pearson/Allyn & Bacon and InfoTrac at Wadsworth Cengage Learning are good examples. Not surprisingly, the cost of these databases is figured into the tuition a college charges students and the cost of the textbook that publishers charge students. The question that needs to be asked here is why should academic associations contribute to this increase in the cost of tuition and textbooks? And, perhaps more important, are there any alternatives?

One of the problems here is that once these large publishers gain more control over a discipline’s journals, their prices are likely to rise, creating an even greater information divide between those colleges that have the money and those that don’t. Harvard students have greater access to information than students at hundreds of small, private, and under-funded colleges throughout the country and especially throughout much of the world. Such colleges and their students suffer disproportionately since there is seldom the kind of money available that is needed to purchase access to these databases. While it may not discourage the start-up of new and innovative colleges, surely it would figure into what other academic programs or college services would need to be reduced to pay for this expensive but essential access to research. A college may chose to sacrifice a multitude of programs and services, but it cannot exist without providing its faculty and students with access to research. The current system, in fact, forces colleges to sacrifice certain services to pay for access to research that researchers gave to the journals without charge—a rather disconcerting irony.

Students and researchers in developing countries will suffer even more and will never be able to acquire the information they’ll need to become truly educated and truly competitive; their libraries and schools simply do not have the financial resources needed to purchase access to this research. These are problems that NCA’s current policies, and those of similar professional organizations, actively help to create and enlarge when they should be acting to minimize such discrepancies. (In fairness, I should add, that it is quite possible that NCA did investigate the impact of these decisions on, say, the access that schools in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America would have to NCA journals; I really don’t know. I hope these questions were raised.)

Potential Downsides for Free Access to Information

Last, this partnering may not be justifiable in an ethical sense. We need to consider the ethical issues concerning the extent to which research and theory should be free or should come with a price tag, often a high tag. Taylor & Francis currently charges $25 per article to read online. (I have no idea if this fee can be increased by Taylor & Francis, by NCA, by both, or if the membership of NCA has any say in determining or in raising such fees.) If NCA journals become “iOpenAccess” journals—Taylor & Francis currently publishes 175 such journals largely in the science areas—authors will be able to make their own articles available for free on the Taylor & Francis website for a “one-off fee of $3250.” In addition, there is no 12 to 18 month embargo for posting your own iOpenAccess article. Is this the direction that NCA wants to go? Colleges with large budgets will be able to pay the fee for their faculty while less well-off colleges will not, creating a different but equally pernicious division between the haves and the have-nots. As you can easily imagine there will likely be few researchers in the developing world who will be able to afford this $3250 fee.

Actually fees do not stop here. For example, if you wanted reprints of an article you wrote in Communication Education you’d have to pay $355 (for 50 copies, minimum order, without covers), a fee that many assistant professors and many poorer colleges will not be able to pay. To the extent that these reprints are helpful in getting one’s research disseminated, those researchers at colleges that will pay for this will have a decided advantage—not because their research is better, but because they can be more effective in publicizing their work.

It is not at all clear by what right an organization takes possession of the research it publishes, sells it to a profit-making organization such as Taylor & Francis, and pays the author—not anything that the author negotiates, but what the professional organization negotiates, or, in most cases, nothing at all. The college or university that provides a reduced teaching load for a professor to conduct and publish research also gets nothing and yet it, in some ways, paid for the research. Similarly, these colleges (as well as the various government and private agencies that fund research) get only the prestige from the published research; they get no money which, it might be hoped, could be recycled to support more research.

Not surprisingly and with good reason, colleges and universities are reacting against this practice. An excellent example is the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s Statement on Publishing Agreements (www.cic.uiuc.edu) which advises: “Suitable publishing partners for academic enterprises should be encouraging the widest possible dissemination of the academy’s work, and the management of copyright should be directed to encouraging scholarly output rather than unnecessarily fettering its access and use. Without some important changes in publishing practices, authors and readers will continue to be frustrated by barriers to the free flow of information that is an essential characteristic of great research universities.”

This is not to say that there are no advantages to such partnering. Publishing journals is obviously expensive and the cost of these publications must be taken into consideration. But, the easy way out—allowing the printer to control the published research to this large a degree—may be a cost too high to pay given that:

  1. The primary mission of an academic association is to disseminate its findings and make them available to all.
  2. The needs and desires of those who conduct, write, and publish is to get their research disseminated as widely as possible and not just to those willing to pay for it.
  3. The needs of students, researchers, and the population in general are to access the research and theory of a discipline easily and at no or low cost.
  4. There seem reasonable ethical principles that would argue that information must be free and available to all.

All this is not to fault NCA or any professional organization or even Taylor & Francis and similar publishers but rather to suggest that it may be profitable to consider alternatives. There may be other (and better) ways to accomplish the goals of making our research readily available that do not include this exclusive partnership, but without sacrificing the advantages that publishers like Taylor & Francis do offer. Perhaps NCA could partner with other professional organizations and make their research available at a much reduced cost or even free. With more and more members opting to receive their journals online (rather than in print form), the cost of journal publishing decreases and becomes more easily capable of being covered by membership fees. Alternatives should, it seems, be considered.

Notes:

* A bit of history. I began writing this essay (earlier versions have been posted on my blog, http://tcbdevito.blogspot.com, and on CRTNET to encourage the field of communication (I guess, mainly NCA members) to look at the potential down side of the practice of partnering with publishers who require a significant fee for accessing articles. I originally submitted this piece (cut to the required 1000 word limit) to Spectra. Oddly enough, I got two rejections (for the same submission). The first rejection (9/14/07) read: “Unfortunately we are not able to include it in Spectra as it is written as an OP Ed piece and Spectra does not have an OP ED section.” The second rejection (9/24/07) read: “After careful consideration, we have decided not to run it in Spectra, in part due to length [though it was exactly 979 words].” In my submission letter I also asked that I would appreciate NCA pointing out any errors or misinterpretations in this essay and that I would correct or amend it accordingly. There were no comments from NCA other than the rejections. I also sent this piece to Taylor & Francis for the same reason and received a response saying “there are no comments to pass on.”

I also sent this to a number of people in the field who seemed much more interested in this issue than either NCA or Taylor & Francis and offered a variety of supportive and encouraging comments (some of which I’ve included in this revised version). All urged that this issue should be discussed more broadly than it has been. I thank them all for their input.


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