APS News

Bill to Kill Open Access Mandate Sparks Debate

By Michael Lucibella

A flurry of controversy, and conflicting legislation, has recently been swirling around the issue of whether scientific articles funded by federal research dollars should be made publicly available on the web.

According to existing policy at the National Institutes of Health, any journal article based on research funded by NIH grants must be posted to the open access PubMed database within a year of its publication. The Research Works Act (RWA), introduced in the House of Representatives by Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) would overturn that policy and prevent the federal government from requiring the posting of journal articles on a free public server. In response, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) re-introduced versions of the Federal Research Public Access Act, which would require that nearly all journal articles based on federally funded research be freely accessible online no later than six months after publication.

Few expect any of the bills to become law; however the RWA has become the focal point of a growing debate within the academic community over issues of free access to scientific results. It’s set against a backdrop of growing dissatisfaction within segments of the scientific community over existing models of peer review and publication.

“A typical academic would, say, have to pay a journal for publishing, then the university has to pay again [to subscribe]…There’s disgruntlement from the academic side,” said Tom Statler, program director at NSF’s division of astronomical sciences. “From the publisher’s point of view, they’re looking at an unstable business environment.”

Publishers and industry groups are divided over the RWA. Those who have supported it have come under fire, which has included a high-profile boycott of one company. Publishers who oppose it have had to walk a fine line between supporting the mission of greater dissemination of science, while at the same time protecting their investments and intellectual property. There are no data available on how many articles are currently produced based on federal funding, nor are there any data that reveal the economic effect the policy has had on publishers.
“Our objection is not to voluntary contribution, it’s against mandating the deposit…and I think it’s an industry-wide concern,” said Glen Campbell, head of the Dutch-based commercial publisher Elsevier’s health sciences journals. “We have a lot of different journals and one size doesn’t fit all of them.”

Elsevier is facing a boycott from academics in part over its support of the bill. According to the website “The Cost of Knowledge,” which is organizing the boycott, more than 5,000 scientists, including 440 physicists, have agreed to not publish, review or edit articles for Elsevier. Scientists who review articles for journals do so voluntarily and without compensation.

“Researchers are going to not give free labor,” said Tyler Neylon, who started the website and is co-founder of the internet startup Zillabyte. “The boycott is saying I won’t do all that free work.”

The American Association of Publishers (AAP), an industry group whose membership includes many of the top academic publishers, is backing the bill. In a statement on their website, the organization “applauded” the act, saying that it will strengthen the peer-review system.

“While the federal government may fund research or some portion of it, it does not fund the scholarly, technological or financial investments made for value-added journal articles produced by private-sector publishers. The federal government should not be permitted to give away these private-sector products without the prior consent of the publishers,” their statement reads.

In an interview, Allan Adler, the vice president for legal and government affairs at the AAP, said that they were not fundamentally opposed to the concept of wider access to scientific research but did not support government mandating the publication of journal articles resulting from it.

“We agree that the government should be doing everything possible to provide efficient and quick access to federally funded research… [Taxpayers] really deserve to know,” Adler said. “What is a matter of dispute is…how to go about doing it.”

Several members of the AAP have publically distanced themselves from the organization’s stance on the legislation. Nature Publishing Group, AAAS which publishes Science, and MIT Press among others have all released statements opposing the RWA.

The American Institute of Physics issued an official statement that reads, “It is AIP’s position that the proposed legislation is counterproductive to current efforts and not needed at this time. The measured, imaginative discussions between publishers and federal agencies that have been spurred by the existing COMPETES law offer the most productive route to success in broadening public access.”

The statement refers to a provision of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. It established a committee under the administration’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to evaluate options to increase public access to federally funded research results and has been working with research agencies, academics, publishers, libraries and others to develop a future policy.

Until the provision was included, some version of the Federal Research Public Access Act had been introduced in Congress almost every year since 2006. The original intent of having the NSTC evaluate open access options was to avoid battles in Congress over the issue.

“The reappearance of dueling legislation is probably not needed,” said Fred Dylla, Executive Director of the AIP. “That’s why I felt this law was ill-timed and unproductive.”

Publishers who have come out opposed to the RWA have been careful as to the position they take on the issue, as they depend on revenues from the sale of journals and articles to recoup the costs of editing and publishing.

“The federal government pays for research, taxpayers should see the result of the research,” Dylla said. “Did the government pay for the expression of that research as a journal article? The answer is ‘No.’”

Dylla estimates it can cost them between $1,000 and $4,000 per article to publish. These include costs for printing, copyediting, servers and management of the peer review process. This last cost has been particularly controversial, as much of the peer review process is done voluntarily by researchers in the field.

“The management of the peer review process for our 10 large journals requires 50 full-time professional editors with a PhD in physics, and they must be compensated,” wrote APS Editor in Chief Gene Sprouse and Treasurer-Publisher Joseph Serene in a letter to The New York Times. “Although we do not support the Research Works Act, we know that the costs of the peer review process are not negligible and must be supported either by subscriptions or article charges.”

The RWA came at a time when tensions have been running high over issues of intellectual property and open access, the free exchange of information and the costs of producing that information. Traditional publishing business models have begun to show cracks in the age of the internet. Established media industries ranging from music labels to newspaper and academic publishers have all been wrestling with the declining revenues. Many have also faced consumer backlash over efforts to protect their established business models. Elsevier has received the brunt of the backlash in the academic publishing world.

“[The RWA] might be one of the things that got most people riled up in the beginning,” Neylon said. “I think that there’s a lot of disgust over SOPA and PIPA,” referring to Elsevier’s support of the proposed anti-piracy legislation which sparked high-profile online protests in January. The website also criticized rising journal costs, the company’s high profit margin and the practice of bundling the sale of journals.

Neylon added that he felt discontent towards commercial publishers was “pretty widespread,” and Elsevier was the focus of the boycott because there was already a strong distrust of them among segments of the academic community. “More people are willing to boycott one publisher instead of all of them.”

Campbell said that there was a lot of misinformation about the company on the web, and that most of the company’s business practices were in line with standard industry practices.

“I would think that it’s because we’re a very large publisher and very visible. It could have been other publishers as easily as it could be us,” Campbell said. “You’re always going to be challenged in times of turmoil.”

The company has been experimenting with some open access models. It offers eight open access journals and lets authors buy open access right in 1,100 of its 2,000 journals.

“I think the future is going to be a more exciting but challenging one,” Campbell said. “I think that we’re going to continue to experiment and launch new titles with new business models.”

Researchers and the public have been clamoring for greater openness of scientific results for more than a decade, especially as the internet has made access to information easier. Traditional models of academic publishing were not designed to handle the increased demand for low-cost access, and many different ideas for new publishing models have been proposed.

“Different research communities have different degrees of need for this kind of open access,” Statler said. “I can’t imagine anyone thinks a ‘one size fits all’ would work.”

He added that in general the federal government is looking for ways to support a transition to business models that can adopt more open access policies.

 “The overall idea is to…go towards a model where the cost of publication is borne at the publication stage rather than the subscription stage,” Statler said.

Journal publishers have started to cautiously dabble with open access. APS now publishes three journals that are completely open access. In addition, it has made all of its journal articles freely available through on-site access at public and high-school libraries.

“APS is proceeding with caution because as we said before not all fields of physics have embraced open access as fervently,” said Jorge Pullin, editor of APS’s open access journal Physical Review X. He added that he personally felt that more publications and organizations were likely to migrate to open access as time goes on. “It seems to me that in the age of Google and the internet, openness is the future.”

APS and AIP have both introduced a “rental” model in 2010 where researchers can read an article online for as little as $0.99. The articles can’t be saved or printed and can only be accessed for a limited time after being purchased.

Adler proposed a different approach, one where progress reports already required by federal grants could be published in PubMed and other open access websites, while journal articles remain the intellectual property of publishers.

“Part of our consternation about all this is what do those agencies do with these progress reports?” Adler said. “We don’t understand why the government doesn’t make those reports accessible to the public.”
Pullin said that he was skeptical that a progress report could replace a journal article for researchers.

“I don’t think that’s sufficient because the reports that one submits to funding agencies are not as detailed as the papers,” Pullin said.

The England-based “Faculty of 1000,” an online subscription service that tracks and rates the importance of biology and medical articles for researchers and clinicians, has announced that it will be starting its own free, open access journal. Its model is unique. Partially inspired by the popular ArXiv website used by mathematicians and physicists, F1000 Research will freely and immediately publish any scientific paper it receives after an initial “sanity check.” The model incorporates the peer review process after the article is published, and all commentary will be open and visible.

“If we can show that this model works, I think others will gradually follow suit. I think it’s the direction that publishing is going,” said Rebecca Lawrence, who is heading the new journal. “I think it will change the landscape. Whether it will completely change subscription journals, I don’t think that will happen any time in the near future.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos