Conflicts

From Peter Suber
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What I do and try to do

  • I work full-time to foster the growth of open access (OA) to research. I advocate OA, analyze it, implement it, consult and strategize about it, and take public positions about it in my speaking and writing. I also use it as an author and reader.
    • I try to say only what I believe and can defend. My positions and arguments evolve according to what I learn, and I try to learn from as many sources as I can. I try not to let my positions and arguments shift according to my financial interests, and hope I succeed. But I realize that if I don't succeed, I might not notice.
    • I don't consider potential conflicts (like salaries or grants) to be good reasons to curb my advocacy, stop speaking my mind, or stop recommending what I believe is worth recommending, especially when I've deliberately taken jobs and grants that encourage me to take public positions on OA. On the contrary, potential conflicts are not reasons for silence, but for disclosure. Hence, I don't make it a principle to avoid comment on the organizations that employ or fund me, or that have employed or funded me in the past. Some of them are major players in areas of my research, writing, and speaking. My goal in this doc is to reveal my ties in order to help others decide for themselves how to weigh my arguments.
  • For more detail on what I do, see my home page.

How I'm paid

  • I have a salary from Harvard University to run the Office for Scholarly Communication, based in the Harvard Library.
    • I publicly defended some Harvard OA practices before I had any financial support from Harvard. But I continued to do so after 2009, when I got a paid fellowship from Harvard, and after 2013 when I took a salaried job at Harvard.
    • I don't defend all of Harvard's practices in any area, including the area of my work (open access, scholarly communication, digital scholarship, academic publishing, copyright). I feel no pressure to do so and, on the contrary, have the support and encouragement of colleagues in working for change.
    • I don't directly raise money for Harvard. But I've spoken to alumni groups, when one purpose evident to all was to encourage them to give.
    • I've talked directly with a few potential donors interested in giving to Harvard or my unit within Harvard. But I limit myself to describing what we do and why I think it's important. I never make the ask. When they give (and some have) my salary does not go up. When don't give (and some haven't) my salary does not go down.
  • Some of my books earn royalties and some don't.
    • The anthology I co-edited with Steven J. Bartlett, Self-Reference: Reflections on Reflexivity, Martinus Nijhoff (now Springer), 1987, pays meager royalties. The anthology is not OA, but my two contributions to it are OA.
    • Paradox of Self-Amendment (Peter Lang, 1990) never paid royalties. Lang wanted me to pay a subvention, but I refused and it published the book anyway. When the book went out of print in 1997, I made the full text OA.
    • The Case of the Speluncean Explorers: Nine New Opinions (Routledge, 1998) is still in print and still earning royalties. It's my only book (and I believe, my only publication) that is not yet OA. I've asked Routledge to make it open, but it has refused.
    • Open Access (MIT Press, 2012) still pays royalties. MIT made it OA one year after publication, under a CC-BY-NC license, and still sells a paperback edition. I asked for immediate OA, and a CC-BY license, but accepted this compromise with the press.
      • While OA and print sales are compatible, and sometimes the former stimulate the latter, in my case the OA edition reduced sales and reduced my royalties.
      • I received a $2,000 advance for this book. I didn't ask for an advance, and didn't know I'd receive one until I'd already written and submitted the manuscript. I haven't received an advance for any other book.
      • At least three schools once gave away copies of the paperback edition of this book to all new members of their faculty; one was the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (not my decision). In the Harvard case, I learned the number of copies bought and given away for this purpose, calculated the royalties on those copies, and donated that amount to Creative Commons. When I was hired as the director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, I stopped the practice of giving copies of my book to new faculty.
      • I was once criticized for accepting an advance for this book, and for not choosing a different publisher that would have allowed immediate OA — essentially, criticized for a conflict of interest. I responded. I won't recap the to-and-fro here, but I link to it so that you can judge for yourselves.
    • Knowledge Unbound (MIT Press, 2016) may or may not pay royalties. So far it hasn't. MIT made the book OA from birth, under a CC-BY license.
  • Of course scholarly articles earn no royalties. Hence, I see no conflicts in my scholarly articles on OA, philosophy, or law.
    • In fact it was the realization as a young scholar that scholarly articles earned no royalties that awakened me to beautiful opportunity for making them OA.

Other things I do

  • I consult pro bono on OA. Because this is unpaid work, I don't see it as a conflict of interest. Moreover, in every case I'm asked for my own views and recommendations, not for those congenial to the person or group I'm talking to. Sometimes this pro bono consulting results in new OA policies or practices. (That's the goal.) Sometimes I do not entirely endorse the results, but at least I tried.
    • Sometimes my pro bono consulting has been grant-supported and sometimes not. Several of my past grants included specific provisions to cover my time so that I could give time without charge to nonprofit OA projects and organizations. (I had such grants between 2001 and 2018, but no longer have such grants.) When my pro bono consulting is not grant-supported, either it's an overload or it's covered by my job description and known to my employers.
    • My pro bono consulting for OA is often confidential. Because some colleagues find this odd, I'll explain. (1) Many institutions do not want to reveal that they are considering an OA policy until they have a draft they're ready to defend. (2) Even after an institution adopts a policy, the institution should be the one to decide, not me, whether to reveal my role in advising on language, procedure, or strategy. (3) Some people who consult with me do not officially represent their institutions. While they seek substantive policy advice, they also seek strategic advice on how to persuade colleagues, often higher-ups, to make an unofficial policy initiative into an official one.
  • When I consult with for-profit companies, I usually charge for my time. I never charge nonprofits.
    • I started working as a paid consultant in 2003, after I gave up my salary as a philosophy professor to work full-time on OA. When I got more consulting requests than I had time to accept, I raised my price until they fell to a manageable level. Today I only take a handful of these jobs a year. Each is usually a one-hour phone call. For the past few years, these consultations have been with investors who want to know whether the stock prices of large, publicly-traded academic publishers will go up or down. I never express an opinion on those future stock prices, and the investors never ask me. I talk about what's happening with OA and academic publishing, and the investors draw their own conclusions. I don't even know what conclusions they draw!
  • I serve on advisory boards for many organizations, and list them on my home page. These roles reflect a willingness to advise, and not always a willingness to endorse. Sometimes I also endorse and sometimes I don't; sometimes I endorse more, sometimes less.
    • When I serve on an advisory board, I don't raise money for the organization, though I will sometimes support its applications for grants.
    • I have never been paid to serve on an advisory board.
  • Sometimes I make decisions, usually with others, on how Harvard should spend its money, for example, on publishers, tool builders, and service providers. This work is covered by my ordinary salary, and I'm never paid by vendors.
  • I am a non-practicing lawyer. The "non-practicing" part of this means that I don't have clients. Hence I'm never in a position to advocate for a client, and never need to distinguish that kind of private-interest advocacy from my general work, which I consider public-interest advocacy.
  • I used to do a lot of public speaking in support of OA. Today, for medical reasons, I do much less. When I do speak, sometimes I accept honoraria and sometimes I waive them. But even when I accept them, I'm never paid to take any position but my own. On the contrary, when I'm invited to speak, the organizers want to hear my take on things.
  • I blog and tweet. But nobody pays me for this. And nobody with control over my income has ever tried to influence the positions I take. (Who has tried? Just the large and growing crowd of networked peers with opinions.)

Past funding

  • When I published my newsletter on OA (2001-2013), I had a subsidy from SPARC, and occasional ads from Data Conversion Laboratory. Neither ever suggested what I should or should not say in the newsletter.
  • For 21 years I was a professor of philosophy at Earlham College. When I stepped down in 2003 to work full-time on OA, I was a tenured full professor. I'm still an unpaid "research professor of philosophy" there.

  • Sometimes it's hard for me to tell the difference between OA work for which I'm paid and OA work for which I'm not paid.
  • Analogy: I support political causes and candidates without pay (indeed, often pay to support them), and much of my support for OA is political in the broadest sense. At the same time, OA is at the heart of my paid work.
  • I feel lucky to be paid to support what I'd support without pay, and (when possible) even pay to support. For about two decades I've deliberately looked for grants, fellowships, and paying jobs to make this happen. But if I had to say whether a given phone call, email, blog post, F2F meeting, interview, article, or public talk was inside or outside the scope of my paid work, I'd often be at a loss. Fortunately, this has never mattered to those who paid me, and I feel lucky about that too.

Bottom line

  • Although I support OA, and work full-time on it, I receive no direct financial gain from its success. For example, I own no stock or stock options in any OA-related company. I receive no commissions on my OA work, unless you count the royalties on my books. Even in the rare cases when I consult for pay, I charge a flat fee which does not go up or down retroactively based on what I said during the consultation.
    • I do benefit indirectly because the success of OA, and the success my own contributions to it, increase the odds that I'll get new grants to work on it, and increase the odds that there will be paying jobs (like my current job) to work on it. However, even in these cases, neither my grants nor my salary are tied to the progress of OA. Once a funder has accepted my grant application, the amount doesn't increase or decrease in proportion to the effectiveness of my work. Once I have a salary, the amount is subject to rule-governed annual increases, and doesn't increase beyond those bounds in order to stimulate or reward good work.
    • I don't have a salary or grant from any for-profit organization.
    • I'm not expected to raise money for any organization as part of any grant or job description.
  • I hope I've disclosed everything that might affect my positions and arguments. But if you think I haven't, please let me know.



Last revised October 6, 2018.

I was prompted to create this page by similar pages from Mike Eisen, Lawrence Lessig, and David Weinberger. I hope this practice spreads.