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

Link Roundup: Open Science

German scientists, being all science-y with beakers and chemicals

If you’re an American taxpayer, you are funding the research of scientists around the countryIn return, you’re getting cures for your illnesses, more accurate weather reports, and tons of other stuff that comes about as a result of the US research endeavor.  This is nothing new.

What is new is the fact that you, sitting there at your computer, can get access to a lot of this science.  Some of it, you can read for free by accessing it from an open access content source like PubMed Central or Public Library of Science (PLoS). More often, though, this work is published in a scientific journal that costs a lot.  You can buy access to these articles for usually around $30 a pop, which is more than I usually pay for a book, much less a single article.  Probably most people aren’t going to pay that.  The bigger question is, should people even be asked to pay that?  If I’ve already paid for this research with my tax dollars, am I not entitled to read the results of that research?

This is the question that drives the concept of open access.  Large federal funders like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation require that you do make your work open access if you’re getting funding from them.  As a librarian, I’m very much in favor of open access.  I think that making knowledge freely available betters society and creates more opportunities for researchers to collaborate on projects that will further the greater good.  Also, because I’m perhaps a bit idealistic, I have a little bit of problem with publishers making millions off of articles that were entirely funded by my tax money, but that’s for another post.

(By the way, lest you think that open access is going to put publishers out of business, you don’t have to worry for them.  If I’m an author whose NIH grant funding means that my article has to be made freely available online, the publisher is just going to charge me, the author, to publish my work in their journal.  These open access fees often come to several thousands of dollars, so the publishers are still making a pretty penny.)

I assume if you’re here it’s because you like reading and learning and perhaps you’d like to read and learn more about this, so with that in mind, here is a list of articles that I have found of interest lately on the concept of open science.  The federal funding issue is one part of this; as you will see, these links deal with the concept of openness in science more broadly.  Enjoy!

  • Shrimp on treadmills, laundry-folding robots, and the problem of ridiculing research
    You’ve proabably heard of the Ig Nobel Awards, which, um, “honor” scientists doing “improbable” research.  In other words, they make fun of people who are working on what sound like really stupid research projects, like making a bra that converts into a gas mask or figuring out the minimum air density of wasabi necessary to wake a sleeping person, thereby facilitating the invention of a wasabi-spraying fire alarm (I know I’d rather be wakened by being doused in wasabi than having to hear some shrill alarm, right?).  It’s easy to laugh at these projects, except as Liz Borkowski points out in this article, even experiments that sound absurd can have practical applications.  When Congress people start mocking scientific studies that they don’t understand under the guise of protecting the taxpayers from silly spending, we risk losing out on important government funding that supports a great deal of the very important research that goes on in the US today.
  • U.S. Says Details Of Flu Experiments Should Stay Secret (or opt for the official NIH Press Statement on the NSABB Review of H5N1 Research)
    As we all know from watching movies like Contagion, bird flu is the terrifying pandemic that will eventually kill us all.  Some researchers have done some research into the likelihood of this situation by studying what sorts of genetic changes to the virus would make it easier for the illness to pass between humans (right now, you’ve got to get it from a bird).  Now, the US government would like the researchers to kindly keep quiet about their research because of fears that bioterrorists could use this knowledge to weaponize the virus.  I can see the point of their concerns, but the scientific community argues that this knowledge needs to be shared so that others can build upon this initial research, hopefully getting us closer to finding a cure or learning how to prevent the spread of the disease.  I can see both sides, but at least for now, the researchers are respecting the request, although the journal Science seems to be considering moving forward with publishing one of the articles.
  • Acceptance of CC-NC has sold readers and authors seriously short
    Open science expert Peter Murray-Rust discusses why licensing open access articles in PubMed Central as CC-NC rather than CC-BY is “a disaster.”  CC stands for Creative Commons, which is an organization dedicated to creating the legal and technical infrastructure necessary to facilitate sharing and openness on the Internet.  There are a number of different CC licenses one may apply to their work that specify what others can and cannot do with that work.  I won’t get into the technical details of what all of these different licenses do, but Murray-Rust nicely explains why the difference is important.  With authors paying thousands of dollars for their work to be “open access,” it’s important that the access is really as open as we might expect.

Image info: Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons