A Threat to Open Access: the Research Works Act

As I discussed in a recent post, quite a bit of scientific research these days is federally funded.  If your funding comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you are required to make your work publicly available by depositing it in PubMed Central, a database of full-text scientific articles.  The reasoning is that the public should have access to the research that they are funding through the tax dollars, which I think seems reasonable enough.

Not surprisingly, the publishers who print the articles in the journals don’t agree, and they have lobbied for the introduction of a piece of legislation that would put an end to the NIH Public Access Policy and similar measures to ensure public access to federally funded works.  The bill, called the Research Works Act, would prevent the government from requiring free dissemination of research articles that have been funded by federal dollars and also prohibit the government from developing open access repositories, like PubMed Central.  According to its proponents, this legislation is necessary to protect publishers from having to give away their articles for free, which would discourage them from investing in the publication process.  The Association of American Publishers’ response is available here.

As a librarian and a proponent of open access, I’m very opposed to this and am concerned by what I feel is the very misleading language of the bill and the misrepresentations of the publishers who are arguing for it.  Here’s what the publishers would probably prefer you not know:

    • NIH Public Access Policy allows for an embargo period of 12 months, meaning that articles that fall within the scope of the policy do not need to be made freely available until a year after they’ve been published.  A year is kind of a long time when it comes to the biomedical literature.  There is little danger of publishers losing subscriptions from libraries, medical centers, or even individuals, because people aren’t going to sit around and wait a year to read something just because they can get it for free at that point.
    • The publishers do not seem to be hurting financially.  Between 2000 and 2009, for example, the revenue of two major biomedical publishers increased by 138%.  Their profits in 2009 were $1.241 billion.  Yes, billion.  For reference, the NIH policy went into effect in 2008, so from thsi data, it would seem that the policy didn’t have a serious effect on publisher profits.  By the way, you can read more about this in an open access article available for free to you in PubMed Central!  (Dorsey, E R, George, B P, Dayoub, E J, et al. (2011). Finances of the publishers of the most highly cited US medical journals. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 99(3), 255-8.)
    • The publishers argue that they add value to the articles by facilitating the peer review process.  While it’s true that peer review is an important process that ideally assures only the highest quality research ends up in print, I don’t really know if the publishers can get away with claims that they’re making huge investments in peer review, as peer reviewers, known as referees, volunteer their services for the most part.  In much the same way that academics are expected to publish, they are expected to contribute to their field by serving as referees for relevant journals.  While I’m sure there’s some cost to the publishers for this, making the claim that they are making huge investments to ensure peer review seems unfair to me.

I was shocked when I became a librarian to see how pricing for journals and other library resources works.  Publishers know we can’t not subscribe to their journals.  If we just stopped subscribing to major journals, we’d never hear the end of it from our faculty and researchers who rely on these resources to do their work.  Of course I work at an institution that has the kind of clout to call some publishers’ bluffs, as happened last year when the Nature Publishing Group tried to raise the UC’s pricing by an outright insane 400%.  However, even with our collective power, we are still facing constant and often substantial increases in what we have to pay for our resources.  We’re making cuts right and left – to resources, to staff, to library hours – while the publishers are raking in record profits.  Of course, publisher pricing policies aside, I am very concerned with this move to undo the good work that the NIH has done to democratize scientific knowledge, in the name of publisher profits.

Image credit: By Raysonho@Open Grid Scheduler (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons