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’.