Tag Archives: open access

Open Access vs. Local Politics

Someone just asked me what I thought of Michael Eisen’s op-ed piece that came out in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Eisen wrote about a new bill in Congress that would roll back a NIH policy requiring NIH-funded researchers to submit copies of their publications to the National Library of Medicine’s publicly accessible web site. As Eisen explains:

But a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last month threatens to cripple this site. The Research Works Act would forbid the N.I.H. to require, as it now does, that its grantees provide copies of the papers they publish in peer-reviewed journals to the library. If the bill passes, to read the results of federally funded research, most Americans would have to buy access to individual articles at a cost of $15 or $30 apiece. In other words, taxpayers who already paid for the research would have to pay again to read the results.

This is the latest salvo in a continuing battle between the publishers of biomedical research journals like Cell, Science and The New England Journal of Medicine, which are seeking to protect a valuable franchise, and researchers, librarians and patient advocacy groups seeking to provide open access to publicly funded research.

The bill is backed by the powerful Association of American Publishers and sponsored by Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, and Darrell Issa, a Republican from California. The publishers argue that they add value to the finished product, and that requiring them to provide free access to journal articles within a year of publication denies them their fair compensation. After all, they claim, while the research may be publicly funded, the journals are not.

I work for some of those journals, and don’t agree with the policy their lobbyists are promoting here. That said, I’m not entirely persuaded by the open access argument Eisen promotes. I’ve described some of my concerns on this blog already. Briefly, I don’t think the open access movement is really about making research “free.” It’s mainly haggling over price and billing.

The public absolutely should have direct access to the results from taxpayer-financed research, without having to pay a second time. By charging exorbitant per-article access fees and subscription rates, subscriber-supported journals are putting profit over public interest. Of course most of them are private corporations, so they’re supposed to act selfishly. That’s why we need a regulation that requires them to release these papers to the public within a reasonable time frame.

That said, the business model Eisen supports isn’t truly free. Open access journals such as the PLoS family of publications invariably charge a hefty “page fee” for researchers to publish their work. They also make a considerable amount of money from advertising. This has led to a booming industry of “open access” journals, some of which are little more than rebranded vanity presses. Don’t let the charitable-sounding description fool you; open access journals, even the really good ones, are still very much about profit.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I make my living from those profits. Indeed, while Eisen and other open access proponents often point out that peer reviewers work for free, they seldom mention the rest of the hardworking staff required to publish a credible journal. At journals such as Science and Cell, for example, someone with the title “Research Editor” has to receive the deluge of submitted manuscripts, triage them, distribute them to appropriate peer reviewers, evaluate the reviewers’ comments, and ultimately decide what to accept. Good research editors are not easy to find, and they absolutely don’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) work for free. For journals that also have news sections, as all of the really big ones now do, there are also news editors and writers like me. If we want to continue to have that added value in research publications – and the evidence is that everyone does – then we have to figure out how to pay for it. There’s also the cost of page design, archiving, and for journals that still have a paper edition, printing and distribution.

The real distinction between subscriber-supported and open access journals, then, is not whether they are in business to make a profit, but who pays and how much. In open access, the researchers pay through their taxpayer-funded grants and the advertising costs of the equipment and services they buy. In the subscription model, readers pay. So the taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab in both cases, just by different mechanisms.

Back when journals were only available on paper, and anyone could get access to them through the library system, the public could read the research they’d paid for at no cost. It just took awhile through inter-library loan. Now we expect everything to be available online, so the NIH open access policy forces the papers to be released that way. As I said, I think that’s appropriate. Yes, someone could still go to the library and ultimately get access to all of the papers, but in the 21st century we shouldn’t require that.

I think the solution is for journals that are currently subscriber supported to move to a business model that’s more like open access. The NIH policy is a good nudge in that direction, as it mandates public release of the papers, but only after a six-month grace period. While the subscriber-supported journals can still charge for immediate access, the policy puts them on notice that they’d better come up with a new plan for the long term. As PLoS and others have demonstrated, that doesn’t have to mean working for free.

So why did Maloney and Issa push a bill that would derail this evolution in science publishing? Well, Maloney’s Congressional district includes the US corporate headquarters of mega-publisher Elsevier, and Issa’s district is adjacent to two other Elsevier offices. Just sayin’.

Elsevier Makes Good: Original Wakefield Takedown Now Free

Awhile back, I blogged about a particularly insidious glitch in the biomedical literature, in which a fraudulent study that caused enormous harm was available for free, while a contemporary – and strikingly prescient – commentary that eviscerated that study was locked behind a paywall. Now, thanks largely to the perserverance of TWiV co-host Rich Condit, this situation has been fixed.

Rich followed up on his original request, pulling strings with several contacts he’d made at Elsevier. He forwarded the conclusion of the saga this morning:

Dear Professor Condit

On behalf of Dr Astrid James, I can confirm that both the commentary and article in question are now free to access, subject to (free) registration on www.thelancet.com

Many thanks.
Richard Lane
Web Editor
The Lancet

Now, not only can the general public read the infamous and now retracted paper from Andrew Wakefield, which purported to show a link between MMR vaccination and autism, but also the brief, thorough debunking of that paper by Robert Chen and Frank DeStefano. Thank you Rich, and thanks to the folks at Elsevier who finally got the point.

The only remaining question is why, in light of Chen and DeStefano’s analysis, The Lancet even published Wakefield’s paper in the first place.

New Elsevier Slogan: “It’s All about The Benjamins”

Regular readers of this blog (both of you), and regular listeners of This Week in Virology (all 10,000-plus of you) are by now quite familiar with a fellow named Andrew Wakefield, and the epic and ongoing public health catastrophe he perpetrated. That story began in 1998, when Wakefield and several coauthors published a paper in The Lancet that purported to show a link between autism and vaccination with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) shot. If you don’t know what happened after that, or how utterly that notion has been discredited, take a few minutes to read up on it. I’ll wait.

As we all now know, Wakefield’s original study was not only tiny, unrepresentative, poorly controlled and vastly overclaimed in the media, it was also unethical and fraudulent. Indeed, all of the authors except Wakefield have since repudiated the work, and The Lancet has retracted the paper.

However, some sharp researchers actually foresaw much of this and wrote a commentary to that effect in the very same issue of the journal where Wakefield’s paper appeared. Had that commentary been given the same media exposure as the paper, much of the ensuing disaster could have been avoided. If we’re going to derive any benefit at all from this whole tragedy, then everyone should go and read that commentary. It provides a perfect case study of the importance of critically analyzing clinical data.

Unfortunately, unless you’re at a university that already subscribes to The Lancet, you’ll have to pay a hefty fee to Elsevier, the journal’s publisher. That’s right: this critically important document from one of the most damaging and costly frauds in the history of science is locked in a vault.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve done some work for Elsevier subsidiaries over the years – they previously owned Drug Discovery and Development and Bioscience Technology, two journals for which I write regularly. That said, I’ve sometimes disagreed with the company’s decisions, and this is one of those times.

Thinking it was merely an oversight, one of my TWiV co-hosts, Rich Condit, decided to send a polite request for Elsevier to open this particular paper to the public:

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to request that the 1998 Lancet comment by Chen and DeStefano on the Wakefield autism/MMR vaccine article in the same issue be made open access on your site. The reference for the comment in question is:

Lancet. 1998 Feb 28;351(9103):611-2.
Vaccine adverse events: causal or coincidental?
Chen RT, DeStefano F.

My reasons for the request follow:

I am a co-host on a podcast called “This Week in Virology” (www.twiv.tv). Each week we discuss topics of interest in virology. We also post “science picks of the week”, miscellaneous items that we think may be of interest to our listeners. I would like to use the Chen and DeStefano article as a pick of the week, but it is behind a paywall so that our listeners would not be able to access it, and posting the pdf would be a copyright violation.

This comment essentially debunks the now famous and retracted article by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues linking autism with the MMR vaccine. The comment is of considerable public interest because it quite accurately discredits the Wakefield report and also anticipates the damage it would do, and is published in the same issue of Lancet that contained the Wakefield article. It was apparently essentially ignored and yet was prescient. I would like the public to be able to have free access to this important comment as a lesson in how these things might be avoided in the future.

TWiV has about 7000-10,000 regular listeners so this is a good way to communicate this important message.

Thank you for your consideration.


Richard Condit
Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL

Rich got a prompt reply from an autoresponder script, which informed him that all requests regarding rights and permissions had to be filed through a particular web site. He did that, and got a receipt indicating that his request had been submitted, presumably for an actual human to review. A short time later, he got this:

Dear Dr. Richard Condit,

Your order 500611163 has been denied as a result of the following: Permission Denied . You will not be charged for this order and a credit will be issued for any monies submitted in this regard to date.

I can’t even count how many ways this is wrong. The now-retracted Wakefield article is available free of charge, and has been for awhile. It requires signing up for The Lancet’s site, but costs nothing. Meanwhile, Chen and DeStefano’s thorough and prescient analysis of this steaming pile of crap is behind a paywall, and apparently Elsevier has no intention of changing that. The fraud is free, the truth is locked up, and that’s how the publisher wants it.

How about Walking the Walk?

From the inbox:

Below is information about articles being published in the April 19 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. The information is not intended to substitute for the full articles as sources of information. Annals of Internal Medicine attribution is required for all coverage

This is off to an excellent start – I’m in favor of reading and linking to primary sources whenever possible, and I’m thrilled to see that a journal is encouraging journalists to do that before they even click on the press release link. I’m ready to give their PR office an A-plus.

Then things go pear-shape. When I actually try to read the full paper, I only get this far:

This item requires a subscription to Annals of Internal Medicine.

Make that a D-minus.

From the Inbox: Journal Spam

Dear Colleague,

The Journal of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Research (JCBBR) is a multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal published monthly by Academic Journals (www.academicjournals.org/JCBBR). JCBBR is dedicated to increasing the depth of research across all areas of this subject.

Translation: we’re launching a new journal for research that can’t get published anyplace else.

Continue reading

Step Right Up, Get Yer Fresh, Hot Data

The Obama administration has announced the launch of a new website with troves of freely accessible data from across the government. The site includes major releases of several new datasets that agencies used to charge money for, as well as some that were simply unavailable to the general public. In addition, they appear to have collected direct links to a huge amount of information that was already online but hard to find, hidden behind the quirky site structures of individual agencies.

Even if you don’t need historical maps of mangrove habitats in the Southeast or detailed statistics on cancer incidence and population, it’s worth checking out the site just to get a feel for what’s now available. They certainly haven’t released everything about everything, but this is definitely a big step in the right direction.

Data.gov screenshot

Got data?

Open Access: Who Pays?

Over the past few years, a model of scientific journal publishing called "Open access" has generated tremendous buzz. Relying heavily on digital technology, and preaching a gospel of free access to scientific information, open access journals allow anyone, anywhere, to read the latest research without having to pay a hefty subscription fee. It’s an attractive idea for a lot of scientists, who pride themselves on sharing their results as widely as possible. A version of Open access publishing has also now become the law of the land for many academic researchers in the US.

I’ve posted about this trend before (here and here), but a post on Spoonful of Medicine got me thinking about it again:

Most of the comments [on an earlier post] have centered on what I wrote about the fact that open-access publishing is not the only alternative to scientific publishing, but just one of several models. Some people take strong exception to this idea to the point of feeling violated by the fact that we “sell back” the science they produce. Others acknowledge that we provide a filtering service, but point to the fact that the peer-review process is free. And a third group of critics argue that the problem with scientific publishing can be summarized in three words: Nature, Science and Cell. Each of these criticisms deserve some comment, and I’ll start with the concept that peer-review is free.

It’s worth reading the rest of Juan’s post for an insightful interpretation of that “free” peer review. I’m going to take on a slightly different issue, though: who ultimately pays for “Open access” publishing?

Trapper opening the door to a trap; NASA image

First, let’s get some terms straight. “Open access” technically refers to the Open Source-like license under which this new crop of scientific articles is published. The idea is that by opening up the copyrights, the publications become more “Free” for readers to use, as well as being “free” of cost. It’s been an incredibly successful model for software development, so why not extend it to science?

To most scientists, and many other observers not directly involved in the science publishing business, Open access looks unambiguously double plus good. The standard reasoning is: the public pays for most basic research, so the public is entitled to use the results of that research without having to pay an additional subscription fee. It’s a simple, intuitive argument. Like many simple, intuitive arguments, it’s also wrong – or at least woefully incomplete.

The crux of the problem is that scientific publishing – when it’s done right – always costs money. It costs quite a lot of money, in fact. While peer reviewers don’t draw paychecks, they are only a tiny part of the pipeline. Someone has to decide which papers to send out for review, someone has to interpret those (often contradictory) reviews, someone has to make final decisions about what to publish and what to reject, someone has to lay out the pages, someone has to run the printing press, someone has to maintain the Web server, and so on. Paper, ink, postage, and electricity aren’t free, either.

Open Source software doesn’t face most of these costs; in the software world, distribution and basic error-checking are entirely automated, the rest of the quality testing can be done by any user, and nobody wants a printed copy. Open access scientific publications have freed up the copyright, but they’re still stuck with the same financial burdens as their commercial publishing colleagues. So who pays?

For a typical journal publisher, there are only three possible sources of revenue: readers, advertisers, and authors. Traditional scientific journals lean on their subscribers and advertisers, mostly letting their authors (the scientists who write the articles) off the hook. Journals published by nonprofit organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science‘s Science magazine, nominally rely on “members” for their income, but most of those members are in fact joining as part of a subscription package, so the result is the same.

Open access journals have vowed not to charge the readers anything, which leaves them with three options: they can charge the authors, look to advertisers for support, and/or backhandedly shift the publication and archiving costs to someone else without charging them directly. I’m not an economist, but having watched this trend develop, I strongly suspect that the bill ultimately comes back to the same people who would have paid a subscription fee in the old model.

In the author-pays model, which the biggest Open access publishers seem to like, authors pay a substantial amount of money to have their work published. That money comes out of their grants, or their institutions’ grants. In this case, the journal is essentially taking (usually taxpayer) money that otherwise would have paid for more science. The big Open access publishers also like advertisers, who pay to advertise things like laboratory equipment. Of course, that advertising cost is reflected in the cost of the equipment itself, which comes out of the researchers’ grants, and … you get the idea.

Incidentally, many traditional journals actually make more of their money from advertisers than from subscribers, and some (e.g. Nature Methods) are entirely advertiser-supported. This makes it difficult to draw a bright line between some of the fashionable new Open access journals and the much older “controlled circulation” strategy.

The “self-archiving” model is more devious. In this approach, Open access publishers handle the (mostly “free”) peer review process, and if a paper is accepted, they publish a link to it. The publication itself is served elsewhere, either from a public system such as the one at the US National Library of Medicine, or an archive at the researcher’s own institution. In other words, the author or the granting agency still pays, but it’s not as obvious. One major challenge in this model is ensuring that the paper will remain accessible in the future, especially if no print version is produced. Eliminating printing and postage and unloading even the digital publication to someone else’s server certainly cuts costs, but is that a wise thing to do with our scientific heritage?

None of this means that I dislike the Open access idea. In fact, I find it quite appealing. I just wish its advocates would be a little less moralistic in their campaign against subscriber-based publishing, and acknowledge that their system has some warts of its own.