Effect Measure

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Dr A
    July 6, 2007

    “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.”

    There are three flaws in this argument. First, these publications are nearly universally available in libraries at public institutions of higher learning. Help yourself. Where is the lack of access?

    Second, the open access argument pretends that non-profit publications, journals sponsored by many scientific societies fall into the same category.

    Third, those of us who do non-medical, non-human, non-applied research seldom have the grant funding to pay for “open access” publication. I was recently invited to submit manuscripts for such a journal for a 300 Euros handling charge.

  2. #2 Janne
    July 6, 2007

    Dr. A:

    Sirst: all but a few of the largest, wealthiest libraries actually only carry a subset of available journals in a field, and the proportion carried shrinks along with the size and budget of the institution in question. In fact, jsut about wherever I’ve been I see people still leeching off their old university accounts and fetching papers for each other as nobody actually has legal, legitimate access to all the info they need. The situation grows worse, of course, in societies that do not have large budgets to spend on higher learning

    Second: I don’t get your point here. Could you rephrase it?

    Third: For-fee journals frequently charge you to publish in them as well (300 euros won’t get you a Science paper published, for instance). And at least the open-access journals I’ve looked at has a policy of waiving the fee in cases where the author does not have the means to pay.

    And a Fourth: I argued in a comment elsewhere that going open-access would in fact not be a budgetary burden on institutions. Institutional journal subscriptions (especially with online and historical access) go from very expensive up into ridiculous, and the number of journal papers published within any one institution is not unbounded; a back-of-the-envelope qalculation would indicate that the yearly cost would not change in any significant way (and would directly benefit smaller and poorer institutions).

  3. #3 Peter Suber
    July 7, 2007

    More on the third point. Dr. A apparently isn’t aware that the majority of open access journals charge no publication fees, and that a greater number and greater percentage of subscription journals charge such fees than OA journals.

  4. #4 JJackson
    July 8, 2007

    Dr. A
    As a UK tax payer my situation may be slightly different but my taxes fund some research and our Universities. I am one of those who has been ‘leaching’ journal access through my son’s account and I know his university’s library has an annual e-journal budget of a little under $5 million. I have just been to his graduation (will have to use my daughters account now) and I think they had about 2,000 first degree graduations.

    Back of the envelope calculation (UK has about 200,000 graduates p.a.) 5 10^6 / 2 10^3 * 2 10^5 = 5 10^8

    So it looks like the UK is paying about half a billion dollars annual of our collective taxes in journal subscription charges. I would rather we spent this on research (or almost anything else).

    I know most of the general public are unlikely to be willing to put in the time to read peer reviewed articles but if they are to make informed decisions on complex issues like international relations, climate change or birdflu I would be happier if they at least had the opportunity to read some of the papers on these topics. The third hand information in main stream media just does not have the rigour or detail required.

  5. #5 Frank Mirer
    July 8, 2007

    How is peer review and editing to be supported if everything is open access?

    Reviewers work for free, just like authors. But someone has to pick reviewers, reconcile comments (I’ve always wondered how this was accomplished), edit copy, and format.

  6. #6 revere
    July 8, 2007

    Frank: I’m a journal editor. I do this for free. But many OA journals charge a processing fee to the author to support the website, etc. That fee is usually less than the “page charges” of journals but means that the cost is being shifted on to the authors. If there is such a charge, it is usually borne by the grant (a $1500 processing charge is usually a tiny proportion of a grant) and most OA journals have procedures for waiving it for developing country authors who can’t pay. The more important aspect, however, is that scientists in the developing world can now access the information without a subscription. OA is also more than no-cost access. It also involves IP rights. See the OA link in the post.