If you live in the US pay taxes and some of those taxes go to support important basic research into the causes of disease. Most of that research is disbursed through an elaborate peer-reviewed granting system at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The point of doing that research is to tell the world scientific community what you have found. “Normal” scientific progress is incremental, building on the work of other scientists. Paying for that research has been shown to be a good investment that has paid for itself many times over. But if you’ve paid for it once in taxes, why should you pay for it many times over? Yet that’s what happens because scientific journal publishers, an industry now concentrated in a handful of big publishers, retain the copyright (the authors get nothing) and retain the right to charge again for work you already paid for. The charge is either in the form of a royalty or subscription. Subscriptions also mean the research doesn’t get to the world scientific community but only to the scientists who can pay and do pay for that that particular journal.
One way to lower the barriers to access by scientists is via permissionless and free access to research results. One prominent version of this comes in the Open Access publishing movement. Open Access is more than cost-free access, but cost-free access would be a huge step forward. It’s a step Congress wants to take but the big scientific publishers and their allies in the scientific establishment whose income comes from lucrative scientific society subscriptions want to scuttle:
As a growing number of research institutes and professional societies move to embrace open or free public access publishing, legislation is pending in Congress that would mandate scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health to post their final peer-reviewed manuscripts online within 12 months after journal publication.
But don’t expect the door to unencumbered access be thrown wide open anytime soon: a number of professional research societies still oppose various aspects of open access, and the mandatory NIH directive is in danger of being scuttled because it is included in NIH’s Fiscal 2008 budget bill, which President Bush has pledged to veto if it exceeds predefined spending limits. (The Scientist)
It is currently NIH policy — policy fought bitterly and with some success by lobbyists for big scientific publishers — that NIH funded research be deposited in the publicly accessible online repository, PubMed Central, within 12 months of publication or earlier. Few scientists do it, and I’d guess most don’t even know they are supposed to do it. There is no enforcement and it isn’t even mandatory. Compliance is estimated at 5%. 12 months is far too long. But it isn’t the equivalent of “forever.”
Meanwhile the handwriting is on the wall:
On June 26 the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced that starting next year it will require its scientists to deposit copies of journal articles in NIH’s PubMed Central free database within six months of publication. “We have sought to balance the goal of public access with the important principle of scholarly freedom in the formulation of this policy,” said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech in a statement. HHMI follows other major funding institutions, including the Wellcome Trust, in mandating open access.
Last week (July 1), the American Physiological Society (APS) announced a new open access publishing option that allows authors for its 13 journals to post studies online immediately after being accepted for publication. Under the new program, called Author Choice, researchers pay a $2,000 processing fee in addition to routine page charges for their studies to be made available immediately.
In addition to serving its own journal authors, Author Choice “is designed to meet the needs of agencies, such as HHMI and Wellcome Trust, which really want [their studies published] sooner than 12 months,” said Martin Frank, APS executive director and coordinator of the DC Principles Coalition, a group of more than 100 scholarly and not-for-profit journal publishers that supports wide dissemination of research findings.
The big publishers and their dumbass scientific allies like the American Chemical Society will likely wind up in the dust heap of tech history with the buggy whip makers and the recording industry.
I hope so.