The Scientific Activist

It looks like it’s going to be a pretty busy day for me, so here’s a post from the archives. I picked this one because it’s still very timely (the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 is still in committee in the Senate) and it’s related to my recent post on open peer review.

(4 May 2006) As society slowly shifts toward more participatory forms of democracy, science policy will increasingly be subject to the will of the general population. The creation of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine via voter-initiated Proposition 71 in 2004 stands as a significant example of this. Regardless of whether one finds this prospect encouraging or unsettling, what is clear is that a basic understanding of science and uninhibited access to scientific information will be imperative if the democratization of science is to proceed for the benefit of science and of society.

Of these two requirements, the public understanding of science is probably a richer, more extensive, and more fundamental area of discussion. However, public access to basic science is significant and generally does not receive as much attention. One aspect that has received some press in recent years, though, is the idea of open access publishing, a system that overturns the central dogma of the publishing industry by making traditionally expensive access to scientific journals now free. The system is generally funded by page charges paid by the authors who are having their work published.

On Tuesday, Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 to the US Senate, which would require free public access to most government-funded research within six months of the research’s publication. I first came across this story via NASA Watch, which linked to a press release in favor of the measure, published by the Alliance for Taxpayer Access. The bill comes on the one-year anniversary of a similar but voluntary measure limited to the National Institutes of Health, as the Washington Post reports:

The legislation, which would demand that most recipients of federal grants make their findings available free on the Web within six months after they are published in a peer-reviewed journal, represents a rebuke to scientific publishers, who have asserted that free access to their contents would undercut their paid subscription base.

It also signifies that some members of Congress have lost patience with a voluntary plan initiated a year ago by the National Institutes of Health. That plan encouraged but did not require recipients of NIH grants to make their findings public within a year after publication. In the first six months of that program, only about 4 percent of eligible researchers bothered to do so….

…The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), goes considerably further than the NIH program. In addition to requiring public access within six months, not 12, it would apply to research funded by all 11 federal agencies that provide at least $100 million in outside funding per year — a category that includes the departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Homeland Security as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Philosophically, it’s hard to argue with open access. Considering the sizeable investment the public annually makes through its tax dollars, access to the dividends in the form of peer-reviewed scientific literature only makes sense. Currently, as is often pointed out, someone has to pay twice to access the scientific literature–once in funding the research initially through taxes and then again in purchasing the journal or article of interest. However, it’s just as apparent that open access undermines the prevalent business model of scientific publishers. If open access was to significantly reduce the quality or quantity of the scientific literature, it would be counterproductive.

Beyond the ideological arguments, though, are more practical ones. As the largest purchasers of scientific journals, university libraries stand to gain immensely from open access measures. Due to current budget restraints, many libraries have to pick and choose what journals to carry, limiting the access to the literature of the students and researchers who depend on those libraries. Not being able to access a research article slows down the research process and puts that researcher at a disadvantage, and by its very nature it limits the dissemination of information, a central tenet of modern science.

Although the strongest argument against open access is the business one, others exist as well. Paying for open access would require a significant investment of taxpayer money, but only a very small percentage of the population is likely to take advantage of free access to journals. Although financial barriers might be alleviated, the scientific literature will remain largely intellectually inaccessible for non-scientists as it often is for scientists outside of the specific field that a research article deals with. Still, knowledge is power, and people deserve the access. Additionally, open access would make research more available to people who will definitely use it: university students and researchers.

Understandably, many in the publishing industry are vehemently against such a strong-handed open access measure:

But Patricia S. Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, promised a fight. “It is frustrating that we can’t seem to get across to people how expensive it is to do the peer review, edit these articles and put them into a form everyone can understand,” Schroeder said.

In the age of the Internet, everyone wants everything free, Schroeder said. “But we can’t figure out what exactly the business model would be. And if you just got the raw research, you wouldn’t have a clue” how to use it, she said.

Within that surprisingly defensive argument are some points that deserve consideration, but Schroeder’s statement about the business model seems misleading, considering that plenty of examples already exist. The most obvious contradiction to this statement is the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which publishes several journals in a variety of fields. Access to the articles is completely free, and they are funded by author fees and advertisements. PLoS Biology has already become a top journal in its field. In addition, as the print media in general has come to embrace the internet, the contribution of subscription fees relative to advertising income has diminished greatly. Although peer-reviewed journals are arguably much different from popular magazines and newspapers, it would be misleading to say that the models do not exist. Journals can also adapt and save money (and trees) by going to online-only publication, giving them more leeway for a shift into open access models.

A more obscure example of the advantages of open access came in a May 2nd New York Times story on problems with the peer review system in general:

Journals have devolved into information-laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry, say Dr. Richard Smith, the former editor of BMJ, the British medical journal, and Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, also based in Britain.

The journals rely on revenues from industry advertisements. But because journals also profit handsomely by selling drug companies reprints of articles reporting findings from large clinical trials involving their products, editors may “face a frighteningly stark conflict of interest” in deciding whether to publish such a study, Dr. Smith said.

Currently, pharmaceutical companies can, according to this story at least, exert influence on journals through their buying power. In an open access system with flat fees for article publication, though, this advantage is erased, removing one more obstacle to good objective science. This alone is enough of a reason to consider open access, particularly in clinical journals. (For a further discussion of peer review, see Adventures in Ethics and Science.)

Clearly, open access offers several advantages, from the ideological to the practical, from informing the public to facilitating university research. In light of the obstacles left to overcome and the financial interests at stake, though, a gradual but steady approach seems advisable at this point. The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 is clearly a step in the right direction, but it does not address some of these fundamental issues. A more comprehensive approach would rely also on temporary incentives for publishers to move toward an open access model and would idealistically give the publishing industry plenty of time to adapt. If the act is passed, it is imperative that Congress follow up with these other complimentary measures. A multifaceted approach by the government, coupled with an innovative and open-minded approach from the publishing industry, could make true open access a reality, an important precursor to making public participation in science more feasible and desirable.


  1. #1 Jake Young
    June 12, 2006

    I was really interested in this article, and I like your analysis but I took a somewhat different tack.

    I published a (sort of) rebuttal here:

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    June 12, 2006

    Thanks for the post and comment. Here’s what I wrote.

  3. #3 Trisha
    June 13, 2006

    The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 is a step in the right direction, but even to have to wait 6 months to be able to get access to a paper is too much. Its old news by the time you get it.

    I wouldn’t mind paying if the subscription prices were reasonable. If they would even just lower the price significantly for online access only that would help a lot. As it is, many of the online only rates are the same as the print.

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    June 13, 2006

    When you write a scientific paper, the vast majority of articles you cite will be older than 6 months, so having open access to that literature is still very useful. The sooner the access, the better, though.