Whose Research Is It Anyway?

Legislation expected to renew debate on “open access” publishing.


Sen. Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Lieberman (I-Conn.)

Last year, Texas Republican John Cornyn and Connecticut Democrat (now Independent) Joseph Lieberman introduced legislation that would require the results of much federally funded research to be posted online for free.

The bill—the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006—would have applied to federal agencies that spend more than $100 million per year on extramural research. Articles based on research supported by those 11 agencies would have to be made freely available online within six months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Although the bill expired at the end of the last Congress, Cornyn expects to reintroduce the legislation, perhaps with modifications, during the 110th Congress, according to Brian Walsh, the senator’s communications director. Earlham College Professor Peter Suber, a leader of the campaign supporting the bill, said companion legislation will be introduced in the House.

Both supporters of open access and their critics are now gearing up for renewed debate. Advocates for the bill argue that Americans shouldn’t have to pay to read about research already funded by their taxes. Opponents contend that the legislation ignores the value added by scholarly journals, and could damage the peer-review system that the journals manage.

Academic opinion about the bill is split. Many college executives support it, for example, while the Association of American University Presses urged caution in changing the current system.

A leading supporter of the bill is the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international alliance organized by librarians who are troubled by the growing cost of subscriptions to scholarly journals. SPARC is part of a global movement in favor of making research results available for free around the world.

The European Commission’s Research Advisory Board has asked the commission to consider requiring that government-funded research be available at no charge shortly after publication. Participants in the 2005 World Congress on Health Information and Libraries in Brazil urged all governments to adopt that policy and fund the cost of publication.

“Open access will accelerate research and all the benefits that come from research,” said Suber, who is SPARC’s senior researcher. “The public has a very strong right to see this research that they’ve already paid for.”

But government support for research doesn’t justify free access to articles based on the research, countered Brian Crawford, senior vice president of the American Chemical Society’s Publications Division and chair of the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division at the Association of American Publishers.

“There are government subsidies for many things,” Crawford noted. “The Park Service is supported by taxpayers, but you pay admission fees to get into the parks. Farmers receive government support, but we still pay for food at the supermarket.”

The current “reader-pays” system serves science well, Crawford said. Subscriptions enable publishers to afford the costs of coordinating peer review—which might collapse if articles were available for free, he warned.

Both sides point to the wide variety of existing journal business models to support their positions.

Peer-reviewed open-access journals have been published for years without driving subscription journals out of business, Suber said, adding that there is no evidence that subscription-based publications would be harmed by the Cornyn-Lieberman legislation. But even if subscription journals were threatened, he added, open access would be justified.

“The purpose of federally funded research is to advance research for the public, not to sustain a private publishing industry,” Suber said.

Crawford called open access “one business model that should be given the opportunity to be tested in the open marketplace. We think government intervention in a fashion that biases the marketplace to any one business model is inappropriate.”

Scholarly publishing is a multi-billion-dollar industry that earns profit for commercial publishers and supports the activities of scholarly associations that publish journals. One U.K.-Netherlands company, Reed Elsevier, publishes 2,000 scholarly journals, including such notables as Cell and The Lancet. Those publications bring in $1.6 billion a year and turn a 30 percent operating profit, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Most journals charge for subscriptions, and many publications (particularly medical journals) also earn income from advertising. Part of their income supports peer review.

Both commercial and nonprofit organizations also publish open-access journals, which support themselves by charging author fees ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. The publications also may sell advertising on their Web sites. Many waive fees for authors who can’t afford to pay. The journals encourage funders to cover the fees in research grants.

The nonprofit Public Library of Science, based in San Francisco, publishes eight open-access peer-reviewed journals, for instance. BioMed Central, a commercial venture in London, publishes more than 170.

Other journals make articles available for free at varying lengths of time after initial publication.

The National Institutes of Health urges its grant recipients to post their articles on NIH’s free PubMedCentral online archive within 12 months of publication. Disappointed that few researchers have done so, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni has asked Congress for legislation that would mandate postings.

The Optical Society of America publishes one of the most successful open-access journals, Optics Express, which was launched in 1997. Optics Express is the oldest open-access journal in physics and the most-cited journal in optics. It has twice boasted the highest monthly percentage increase in citations in physics, according to ISI Thompson’s Essential Science Indicators. The journal is supported by author fees of $700 to $1,200—more for longer articles—and it turns a modest profit.

OSA’s other journals are supported by subscriptions, but also offer authors an open-access alternative. Articles are made available online for free if the author pays a $1,500 fee.

OSA’s experience can be used to support both sides in the open-access debate. Optics Express proves that a high-quality, peer-reviewed, open-access journal can pay its own way. Authors are attracted by the shorter time from submission to publication that online publishing affords, the journal’s ability to support multimedia files, and the high citation rate, which is driven at least in part by the journal’s global availability at no charge. The open-access alternatives at the other OSA journals show that at least some authors will pay a fee to reach a wider audience. SPARC honored Optics Express as a “leading edge partner” in open-access publishing.

John Childs, OSA’s senior publications director, is proud of the success of Optics Express, but he said authors have not yet embraced the open-access option at the other journals. And he worries that federally mandated open access could threaten the income that supports peer-review and enables a wide range of non-publications programs at OSA.

“Publications leaders and senior staff are closely monitoring worldwide developments in open access,” he said. “We don’t share the alarm generated in some quarters. But we’re concerned.”

[ Tom Price is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who focuses on government, politics, technology, business and education. ]





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Whose Research Is It Anyway?

Legislation expected to renew debate on “open access” publishing.

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