Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Attitudes and values regarding research communication

Following are my comments on the attitudes and values regarding research communication section from the Taylor and Francis survey (p. 7). For my overall comments, see this post. To avoid creating an extremely long blog post, I'll divide up responses into more readable bits.


The most telling piece of data on this page is support for the access problem. 38% disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that "Researchers already have access to most of the articles they need". This is strong support for the existence of a problem with access to scholarly articles for researchers, particularly coming from a survey of authors associated with a for-profit traditional publisher. To illustrate the bias inherent in some of the statements concerning money and whether publishers are essential to research communication process, consider one statement about money and research communication that was not asked:  Researcher salaries are more important than excessive publisher profits.

The statement that "publishers are an essential part of the research communication process" likely reflects both social desirability response bias (our responses are shaped by what we think people want to hear) and question bias (there is no way to state that publishers are disposable, or important or valuable rather than essential).

Responses to statements about the money involved in research communication may reflect the fact that researchers are usually not involved in the money aspect. For the commercial publisher, this is a multi-billion dollar a year business, but for the researchers themselves, this still looks and feels like a primarily gift economy. Responses to the statement about re-use of research result contradict results presented on the next page, and may be interpreted as a desire to facilitate re-use combined with a concern to ensure that re-use is appropriate and to the benefit of researchers and their works, supporting arguments that I make in my Creative Commons and Open Access critique series. Finally, the question about the importance of research data is too flawed to be meaningful. For example, there is no way of knowing how many researchers saw free access to research data as less important than free access to articles are working in disciplines or sub-disciplines that do not use research data.

Detailed comments

Three of the questions deal with money in various ways. The prominence of these questions may illustrate the publisher's bias. If researchers were designing questions about their colleague's attitudes and values regarding research communication, would questions about how this gets paid for be as close to top of mind as it would be at a for-profit company? The responses to these questions suggest not. One interpretation of these responses is that the majority of researchers seem to be in agreement with keeping money out of the picture for both authors and readers. This may reflect that this multi-billion dollar highly profitable business for a very few commercial scholarly publishers continues to function as a gift economy for the researchers themselves. They give away their work as authors and peer reviewers for free. Subscriptions and purchases are almost entirely paid for by the institution through the library, not the researchers themselves. They don't see the money trail, and they don't want to see it. This is healthy, from my perspective, but one should keep in mind when asking these questions that the respondents may be largely unaware of how the funding of this system works.

These are the statements I am referring to:
Publication of research should not be limited by ability to pay (86% agree or strongly agree)
All research outputs should be free for everyone to read online (66% agree or strongly agree)

The dissemination of research is a common good and should not be monetized in any way (67% agree or strongly agree).
The statement "Publishers are an essential part of the research communication bias" likely reflects two sources of bias. First, the question bias - respondents are led to consider whether publishers are essential - not whether they are disposable, and not even whether they are valuable or important but perhaps not essential. Second, social desirability response bias. This is a survey sent by a publishing company. We have a tendency to respond in the way people want us to respond, and this tendency might be higher among those who choose to respond to a publisher's survey. The 77% agree or strongly agree response has to be taken with a grain of salt. For a brief description of social desirability response bias and the related effect of acquiescence (yes-saying) bias, see Bowling, A. (2005).

To illustrate the bias inherent in both this statement and the statement concerning money, consider one statement about money and research communication that was not asked:  Research salaries are more important than publisher profits. 

Responses to the statement "There should be no restrictions on reuse of research outputs" contradict responses to the statements about dissemination on the next page. 82% agree or strongly agree that there should be no restrictions, but on the next page only 40% agree that their work should be reused in any way. Only 32% agree or strongly agree that it is acceptable...without my prior knowledge or permission...for "others to use my work for commercial gain". I argue that the fine points of understanding the consequences of various approaches to licensing for re-use are currently not fully known in my series Creative Commons and Open Access Critique. Taking the two contradictory responses together, one might suggest that there is a desire to facilitate re-use but that researchers would like careful thought to go into the terms and conditions, to ensure that there are no negative consequences for researchers. In other words, this contradiction supports my arguments on this topic.

The low positive response rate to the statement "Researchers already have access to most of the articles they need" - only 37% agree or strongly agree - may be the most telling of the questions on this page. This low positive response rate contrasts with what appears to be an overall tendency towards highly positive responses to the other questions on this page. Whether researchers have access to the articles they need or not is clearly within the authority of respondents to answer, unlike the other questions on this page. Responses to this question strongly support the need for open access. 38% of researchers either disagree or strongly disagree that researchers already have access to most of the articles they need.

The final statement "Free access to data matters more to me than free access to research articles" had a low positive response rate - only 23% agree or strongly agree. However, this is a highly problematic question. For example, much research in the humanities and social sciences is not data-driven, and for research that is data-driven, in HSS there are often complex issues around privacy that would need to be addressed before data sharing can happen. Because this question was not linked to a question about research data use in the researcher's discipline, it is highly likely that lack of interest in free access to data is conflated with lack of interest in data, period, and recognition of the problematic nature of data sharing. Then there is question bias. Even a strong free access to data advocate might not agree that this is more important than free access to research articles.


Bowling, A. (2005).  Mode of questionnaire administration can have serious effects on data quality J Public Health (September 2005) 27(3): 281-291 first published online May 3, 2005 doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdi031

This post is part of the Taylor and Francis Open Access critique survey series

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