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The Executive Officer’s Column

Opening Access to Pandora’s Box in Science Communication

“Open access” swiftly rose to buzzword status on Capitol Hill in the last few months among scientific journal publishers and advocates of greater public access to government-supported research results. “Open access” is many different things, but it encompasses an important concern about facilitating timely public access to taxpayer-funded health research. But the reason for the rapid assent of “open access” in current Washington debate is the hasty speed with which the government cobbled together a proposal for what represents a new, untested business model for scientific publishing without public hearings or congressional dialogue.

Credible, timely, and understandable health research results are an important public good, but when Congress slipped a short note of guidance in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) FY 2005 funding bill this summer, NIH director Elias Zerhouni responded rapidly with a proposed government publishing approach that would post peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts on NIH’s PubMed Central database six months after journal publication. The idea ignored some very major issues, including that nonprofit scientific societies finance peer review, that copyright is undermined, and that confusion results from publicly archiving both draft and final manuscripts. Important players were also ignored, including nonprofit scientific society publishers whose authors and members have a significant stake in if, and how, the government enters the business of scientific publishing.

The “open-access” movement’s origin stems from understandable pressures as diverse as disease advocacy groups seeking to aid patient populations; a former NIH director and founder of PLoS (the Public Library of Science) advocating an author-pays publishing system; academic librarians dealing with increasing costs of some commercially owned medical journals; Congress’ doubling of the NIH budget, which has made NIH a political target for increased “accountability”; international resolutions regarding “knowledge society” obligations; and the 2003 Public Access to Science Act. While the British government struck down a similar open access proposal this fall (because there was no empirical evidence that the science was not accessible), the proposal moves forward in Congress. It has, however, been slowed by the over 6,000 public comments to NIH, many of which raised serious issues about its hastily drafted plan. The NIH plan was not a cooperative venture, which Congress acknowledged, as it did a suspicion that the NIH cost estimates on implementing this electronic publishing venture appeared both naïve and likely to tap into shrinking grant funds.

ASA coordinated with other scholarly publishers in advising NIH. Below is a synopsis of a few of our comments to NIH. ASA members and sociology authors are clear stakeholders, since ASA publishes nine peer-reviewed scholarly journals, some of whose articles would be directly affected by NIH’s policy. But, since the final NIH policy will undoubtedly become a model for “public access” publishing plans across the government, all ASA journals are implicated. ASA’s arguments were provided in the spirit of the Hippocratic oath to first “do no harm” and of ensuring that any plan would not, in the long run, reduce the quality or quantity of publicly funded science.

Nonprofit science publishers contribute significantly to peer review and dissemination of health-related research, and they are a significant part of America’s capacity to sustain a robust industry of scientific communication. Nonprofit (and profit-making) publishers—not NIH—financially support and provide the peer review of NIH-funded research. Elements of the current proposal, however, are likely to have a detrimental impact on the nonprofit scientific publishers’ capacity to do so. For example, for ASA and most scholarly organizations, library journal subscriptions fund peer review and the editorial process. They also support other core educational and professional activities of most scholarly associations. Because the proposed NIH system will undermine these library revenues, it is likely that scholars will have fewer opportunities to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Self-publishing (which is already increasing with the internet) will undoubtedly increase, providing scientific results without the quality assurance and credibility of current practices.

If the federal government assumes responsibility for electronic dissemination and archiving of scientific findings, will it be able to assure the permanent availability of scientific content in the absence of stable, long-term congressional and executive commitment of resources? As a policy matter, is it appropriate for government to play this role in a society that wishes to ensure the independence of scientific knowledge? If private-sector scholarly publishers are financially weakened or irreparably injured in the process, scientific societies’ journal programs will either perish or move to an author-pays model of publishing, as open access advocates want (e.g., PLoS). That is, if library subscriptions do not pay for peer review and the editorial process (because the content is available online for free), then authors, their universities, or already inadequate research budgets will have to pay for the cost of submission and peer review of a manuscript. As authors divert more of their grants to publication rather than research, only authors with large grants, private wealth, or in financially secure universities will be able to afford to publish; young scholars will be most disadvantaged. This problem will be particularly acute in non-laboratory social sciences, where much important research and new knowledge is produced without significant grant support.

The NIH proposal is oddly counter to the current administration’s push for private provision of public services. The current increase in private-sector efforts to promote the electronic dissemination of research results (e.g., a collaborative “patientINFORM” effort of the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association), although not yet fully developed, suggests it is premature for the federal government to designate itself the 800-pound gorilla of scientific publishing.

NIH is required to develop an “open access” plan, but implicit in recent congressional guidance is that NIH produce a thoughtful policy and “work with the publishers of scientific journals to maintain the integrity of the peer review system.” We are hopeful this will happen.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer