Daily Archives: April 11, 2012

Credit Rick Santorum with accepting the obvious: he lost. Despite winning 11 primaries, Mr Santorum was always more of an irritant than a plausible contender for the Republican nomination. He surrenders the field having done a meaningful, though not enormous amount of harm to his side.

Mr Santorum made Mitt Romney’s task harder by forcing him to continue spend on the primaries money that could have gone against the general election, by exacerbating doubts about his conservative credentials, and by reminding swing voters that many Republicans remain unfriendly to women, hostile toward the separation of church and state, and too interested in other people’s sex lives.

Mr Romney is none of those things, however, and with Mr Santorum out of the way, he now can get on with the business of challenging Barack Obama. With the primaries unofficially over, the shape of the fall race is fast emerging. Simply stated, Mr Romney is going to run against the Obama economy while Mr Obama runs against Mr Romney himself.

The Republicans will argue that every problem the country faces, from the anemic economic recovery to high petrol prices is the fault of a well-meaning, but inept incumbent. The closest analogue to this campaign might be the one Bill Clinton conducted against the elder George Bush in 1992. Like Mr Clinton in that year, Mr Romney is attempting to exploit the lag between how the economy is and how it feels.

But Mr Romney lacks Mr Clinton’s political skills, to say the least. Also, his case will be a far trickier one to make, because the recovery is further along than it was at a comparable point 20 years ago. In interviews, Mr Romney is forced to concede that the economy is in fact growing, and must try to establish the more complicated proposition that Mr Obama is nonetheless holding back its true potential through excessive intervention. This puts Mr Romney in the sour position of constantly underscoring – and hoping for – bad economic news while foreclosing his own future options in dealing with it.

If Mr Romney’s pitch resembles a Democratic one, Mr Obama appears to be preparing a Republican-style negative assault on his opponent’s character. This is what George W. Bush’s advisor Karl Rove did in 2000, seizing on a few gaffes to cast Al Gore as a serial exaggerator, and in 2004, when he portrayed John Kerry as a slippery flip-flopper. Mr Obama’s advisors David Axelrod and David Plouffe are attempting to define Mr Romney as both a political opportunist who tailors his views to suit the moment and as an out-of-touch plutocrat who can’t relate to ordinary people.

Their chief ally in this effort has been Mr Romney’s mouth, from which have emerged the most extraordinary string of self-defaming comments, ranging from the pleasure he takes in being able to fire people to the fact that his wife has “a couple of Cadillacs.” The most recent blow was a story about Mr Romney’s plan to build an automobile elevator into his newest extravagant vacation home. Mr Obama will not attack Mr Romney’s wealth directly. Instead, he will portray his opponent’s policies as designed to benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class, as with his attack last week on the budget plan Mr Romney supports as “thinly veiled social Darwinism”.

The race begins with Mr Obama 5 to 10 percentage points ahead in national polls, better funded, and ahead in grass-roots organising in several of the key battleground states. But while the President starts with the upper hand, this is likely to be a close, hard-fought contest. One risk is that the personal assault Democrats level against Mr Romney backfires against Mr Obama, defining him as a thuggish, “Chicago-style” politician. At the very least, the President’s angrier, populist turn will cut against his efforts to convey a sunny, optimistic outlook. Another hazard for Mr Obama is the new vehicle known as the Super PAC, which allows the rich to contribute unlimited sums to technically “independent” efforts. Spurred by the billionaire Koch Brothers, Republicans expect to raise in excess of $400 million for advertising against Mr Obama.

The biggest risk to Mr Obama remains unchanged. With 209 days to go until the election, it is the US economy itself. A few more weak reports from the Labor Department or a replay of last summer’s recession scare could turn to mockery the President’s message that things are getting better. His modest lead is bound up with a still-tenuous recovery.

Why has it taken so long? Academics were among the early adoptors of the internet, and the best of them want their ideas to be shared as freely and widely among their peers as possible. Yet while other parts of the media industry have seen established business models destroyed by on-line competition, for-profit academic publishers have continued to charge high prices and generate fat profit margins, largely untroubled by a few upstart competitors offering their content on an open access basis.

There are two answers to the question. One is that publishing academic research is an expensive business, not the kind of thing you can do in the back office. The most prestigious publications have very high rejection rates, and require extensive peer reviews and cataloguing.

The other is that this is a world where established brands are very powerful. Academic researchers get recognition and promotion not just on the basis of the numbers of papers they produce, but also on the quality of the journal that publishes them. Titles with the strongest reputation get the pick of the best research papers, and you’d have to be both brave and confident to turn your back on them.

But now things are changing. Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest private funders of medical research, has long been pressing the scientists it funds to make their work freely available as soon as possible. Last year, it took this approach a big step forward by agreeing with two other leading research bodies, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of the US and the Max Planck Society of Germany, to underwrite the costs of a new web-based science journal which will publish on an open access basis. An impressive team of editors has now been recruited, and eLife will start to appear later this year.

Its three backers have the reputation and the muscle to create a powerful new brand, and their timing is good. With university budgets under pressure everywhere, academics are becoming increasingly frustrated by the way their publicly funded research is being used to create large profits for publishers in the private sector.

Dr Timothy Gowers, a distinguished Cambridge mathematician, started the ball rolling in January this year in post on his blog explaining why he refused to submit his work to journals published by Elsevier, the leader in this field with titles like The Lancet and Cell. It charged too much, he said, it forced libraries to buy titles they might not want by bundling them into groups, and it supported legislation that opposed free access.

His message struck home. More than 9,000 researchers have now signed an on-line pledge to boycott publications owned by Reed Elsevier.

But the academic community as a whole is unlikely to move overnight to a new model. The top titles still have a very strong appeal to ambitious researchers, and generate the kind of profit margins that leave room for a fight back. Elsevier has already begun tweaking the pricing structure of a number of its products and can do more as competition intensifies.

And there are some questions about eLife’s business strategy. The idea is that after an initial period in which the journal gets established, authors will be charged a processing fee to cover some of the costs of publication. Wellcome rightly believes that research isn’t complete until it has been published, and is ready to provide the researchers it funds with extra money to cover the costs of publication where appropriate. Whether other funders will take this far sighted approach has yet to be seen.

So eLife may not be a game changer. But given the quality of its support and the mood of the times, it surely marks a long term shift in the business of academic publishing.

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