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Scientists, Fight For Access!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Ask many scientists what they believe separates the pursuit of scientific inquiry from most everything else and you’ll get a wide range of open-ended, flowery, idealistic, and nearly altruistic, statements like ”unlock the mysteries of the world”, “the thrill of discovery”, “making a meaningful contribution to society”, or “improving people’s lives”. No matter how you cut it, scientists tend to agree that science is an important framework for systematically establishing the validity of claims by relying on evidence.

Scientists’ idealism is honorable, and genuinely heartfelt. Few other groups of people really do want the change the world in such a positive, progressive manner. Yet, in a twist of irony, few other groups who prize evidence and free thought systematically follow dogmatic traditions that are directly in conflict with their idealistic world view. Why are some of the smartest people in the country allowing publishing companies to fleece them, their institutions and libraries, the federal government and the american taxpayers of their money?

Sadly, what is occurring is not illegal, but to the average person it might sound like a fine line between fee-for-service and embezzlement of taxpayer money. Scientists, at least those receiving federal and state grants, are awarded taxpayer’s money based on merit of proposals by a groups of their peers. This money is managed through academic institutions and when it comes time to publish these results in the peer-reviewed literature, fees are paid out to private, profit-driven publishing companies. The publishing companies provide editorial assistance and the peer review process and once accepted, print it out or make the works available online and ship copies to subscribers. There is nothing wrong about providing fees for service, but these publishing companies then charge the same academic and federal institutions and the taxpayers who provided the initial funds for the research to access the information that they paid for.

Herein lies the paradox. Consider an investment broker who takes clients’ money offshore evading the United States tax system and then charges their clients fees to access their own money and to merely look at their portfolio or balance. Not a perfect analogy, and not entirely illegal perhaps, but it smells just as funny. This is why there are groups of people, not only scientists, that insist on open access of publication results and data for taxpayer-funded research. Who else wants access to research besides scientists? Non-profit groups with strapped budgets, advocacy groups for patient rights, teachers and students at grade schools or even non-research universities, journalists and writers working on news stories or books, etc. – all are participants of the knowledge ecosystem along with the researchers. Many are indeed taxpaying United States citizens who have actually helped to fund the research they desperately need access to.

In 2008, the National Institutes of Health recognized the irony and proclaimed that all federally-funded research publications be made openly accessible. They even provide a repository (PubMedCentral) and a gave researchers (and publishing companies) a generous leeway up to 12 months post-publication to accomplish this. The publishing companies still had a year to make money off the research and taxpayers would eventually get to read relevant research results after an arguably reasonable period.

Not satisfied with this compromise, though, the American Association of Publisher’s, has been fighting back and curiously appear to have secured a few members of Congress in their back pocket. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduce HR3699, the “Research Works Act“, into Congress just before Christmas. And it not a tenuous link that Maloney and Issa both  received donations from major publishing companies in 2011 and ended year introducing this short, and potentially misleading, bit of text intended “to ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector.” It reads as follows:

No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that–

(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or

(2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

As with any legislation, language is always very important. As Dr. Michael Eisen pointed out on his personal blog, “this bill would not only end the NIH’s Public Access Policy, but it would forbid any effort on the part of any agency to ensure taxpayer access to work funded by the federal government.” Additionally, the part about the “private-sector” refers to any non-governmental research. In this manner, universities would be regarded more as independent contractor and their research works would thus be non-governmental and part of the “private sector”.

Speaking of language, the text of the AAP’s press release commending the legislation is mind-bogglingly superfluous! Is there really rogue peer review out there that needs protecting against? Where Tom Allen, president and CEO and AAP notes, “The professional and scholarly publishing community thanks Representatives Issa and Maloney for supporting their significant investments that fund innovations and enable the essential peer-review process maintaining the high standards of U.S. scientific research.” It is disingenuous at best to connect the free, open dissemination of publicly-funded research works with standards of peer review and innovation. If anything, the taint of profit-driven shenanigans causes a detriment to the credibility of research and peer review.

The AAP even goes so far as to boldly state “Journal articles are widely available in major academic centers, public libraries, universities, interlibrary loan programs and online databases. Many academic, professional and business organizations provide staffs and members with access to such content.” Being widely available is not the same thing as being widely accessible! If you offer something on the internet, by definition it is widely available. This blog is widely available since internet connections exist in most countries around the world. But locking research works behind paywalls makes them widely inaccessible and not just geographically either as anyone without the means (poor people -which are historically minorities; cash-strapped nonprofits, teachers and students; etc.) is effectively barred from knowledge that they financially contributed to, in a collective sense, through tax payments.

So, we are where I started this conversation, why do the some of the smartest people in country allowing this to happen? I think Danah Boyd put it best in a pointed rant on saving ideas, not the publishing industry

But what pisses me off to no end is that the same Marxist academics who pooh-pooh corporations justify their own commitment to this blood-sucking process with one word: tenure. Not like that is the end of the self-justifications. Even once scholars get tenure, they continue down the same path – even when not publishing with students – by telling themselves it’s for promotion or because grants require it or because of any other status-seeking process.

With the rise of at least two prominent open access publishing companies, Public Library of Science and BioMedCentral, with an assortment of general and niche topic science publications, there is little excuse to support this institutionalized fleecing. In fact, as the blog for the Association of College and Research Libraries notes, there are several ways we can be break out of the vicious cycle, produce noteworthy publications in popular, highly-accessed and openly available journals. The fact of the matter remains that the large, profit-driven scientific publishing companies are touting an unsustainable and outdated model and failing to innovate their own industry. Instead, they are pumping thousands of dollars into politicians to enact legislation making it more difficult for individuals and institutions to access research works. In fact, we’ve seen the initial dying throws of the industry as it spews out dozens of new, highly-specialized journals to target ever more niche audiences.

There is one thing that we all need to do, though. If you have ever supported science, if you rely on research works for your advocacy group or non-profit (medical, environmental, etc.), if you are scientist who understands how precious every research dollar is, or even if you are a taxpayer concerned about publishing companies double-dipping (remember, many public universities’ libraries are publicly-funded to some extent!) you need to get off you ass and get involved right now! The Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) puts out calls for comments on science and technology related legislation. Guess who answered the call? Private publishing companies. Guess who did not answer the call? Scientists.

In fact, since no scientists commented on 2 recent calls and the deadlines were extended. One, Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research, unfortunately just passed (was extended to January 12!). I do not think that should stop you from making a comment though, perhaps to your elected representatives. The other, Public Access to Digital Data Resulting From Federally Funded Scientific Research, is still accepting comments through January 12. If you are unhappy with something, it is incumbent upon you to do your part to change things. I hope readers will join me in contacting representatives Maloney and Issa and sharing why we think limiting access to taxpayer-funded research is a bad idea for our nation.


UPDATE: Jonathan Eisen just published a post about a highly disturbing letter from the Ecological Society of America to the White House OSTP in regard to Open Access publishing. He lays it out thoroughly so I won’t rehash it here, but definitely worth a read!

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +. Editor's Selection Posts on EvoEcoLab!

Follow on Twitter @kzelnio.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 23 Comments

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  1. 1. hjosephdc 4:59 pm 01/6/2012

    Thanks for the excellent post. One correction: the deadline for the White House OSTP “Request for Information” on public access to federally funded research articles was extended till January 12th as well. Scientists: Please participate!

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  2. 2. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 5:03 pm 01/6/2012

    Thanks! Corrected it in text.

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  3. 3. petnoyer 6:03 pm 01/6/2012

    well done, Kevin, this is an important issue. you’re right that scientists should comment. i must say that I do appreciate these journals, and their legacy, but I agree they need to adapt. the ‘pay to be open access’ option that some journals are offering seems like a fair solution.

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  4. 4. billsmith 9:24 pm 01/6/2012


    I rely mostly on the popular press to find out about scientific discoveries. But after that, I try to go to the original source and read for myself the conclusions and concerns of the actual scientists (without the filtering effect of the story the journalist wants to tell).

    Without PubMed Central, this simply isn’t possible. I am not faculty at a major university, nor can I drop a twenty every time curiosity drives me to fact-check a news story.

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  5. 5. Lou Jost 9:35 pm 01/6/2012

    There is a flip side to this. Many traditional journals don’t charge authors anything, and that is a good thing. Most open-access journals, on the other hand, charge authors fairly large sums. Independent authors without big grant support would be frozen out of science if most publications charged high fees.

    I think many of the open-access journals are just another way to fleece scientists. It is difficult to imagine how open-access, completely electronic journals can justify these charges, especially since they almost universally rely on unpaid peer reviewers. Maybe it would be possible to have publicly-funded open-access journals.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 10:32 pm 01/6/2012

    Lou Jost: I think that publicly funding open-access journals is a fine idea. Moreover, requiring that any research produced with any public funding be published in an open-access journal makes even more sense to me.

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  7. 7. Kevin Z 11:07 pm 01/6/2012

    Lou, true. Some journals do not charge authors except in cases of color charges or the such. I think this is pretty rare, but that might because of my experience with the journals I’ve submitted to.

    I think the point comes down to, we are paying with someone else’s money, whether we pay for closed access or open access. I think all arguments point to putting that money behind open access. I mean, journal fees come out of grants typically, not our salaries (although, I’m sure there are cases…). But the issue remains, concerning this legislation, that Congress and publishing companies are trying to silence any dissemination of publicly funded research works. If you bought an ipad on layaway and after a month you wanted to collect it and the store said it’s going to cost $45 for 24 hours of access to your ipad. Wouldn’t you think that was sorta batshit insane?

    I really like the idea of publicly funded OA journals. Or journals with a set a rate for federally funded research that they can bill the government for on a per article basis. For instance, you publish a paper and the gov. rate is $2000/ article. At the end of the billing cycle the company tells the federal agency that 10 articles were published and here is my invoice for $20000. Then charges don’t have to be written into grants and budgeted for.

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  8. 8. Lou Jost 8:53 am 01/7/2012

    Kevin, I am a third-world scientist not associated with a university, and I have to pay for my publications out of my own pocket. I would have to eat less (and I am thin already!!!), or make other sacrifices, in order to publish in most open-access journals. For that reason, my only publication so far that was open-access was in a new open-access journal that provided free publication for their initial journal numbers (sort of a loss-leader to get the journal established so it could start charging its fees later). In contrast, journals like Molecular Ecology, Oikos, Diversity and Distributions, and most others I have dealt with, do not impose page charges (unless color is needed). The main exception in my experience is the journal Ecology, which does impose page charges.

    I should note that some open-access journals do waive fees for third world researchers. They are to be congratulated.

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  9. 9. Velterop 12:07 pm 01/7/2012

    Quoting Danah Boyd’s paragraph about the academic “status-seeking process” is spot on. I’ve earlier commented on the status enhancement nature of publishing:

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  10. 10. StevanHarnad 4:25 pm 01/7/2012

    “Research Works Act H.R.3699: The Private Publishing Tail Trying To Wag The Public Research Dog, Yet Again”


    The US Research Works Act (H.R.3699):

    “No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that — (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.”

    Translation and Comments:

    “If public tax money is used to fund research, that research becomes “private research” once a publisher “adds value” to it by managing the peer review.”

    [Comment: Researchers do the peer review for the publisher for free, just as researchers give their papers to the publisher for free, together with the exclusive right to sell subscriptions to it, on-paper and online, seeking and receiving no fee or royalty in return].

    “Since that public research has thereby been transformed into “private research,” and the publisher’s property, the government that funded it with public tax money should not be allowed to require the funded author to make it accessible for free online for those users who cannot afford subscription access.”

    [Comment: The author's sole purpose in doing and publishing the research, without seeking any fee or royalties, is so that all potential users can access, use and build upon it, in further research and applications, to the benefit of the public that funded it; this is also the sole purpose for which public tax money is used to fund research.]”

    H.R. 3699 misunderstands the secondary, service role that peer-reviewed research journal publishing plays in US research and development and its (public) funding….

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  11. 11. hylopsar 7:24 pm 01/7/2012

    Kevin, great post, and I hope it reaches a lot of people and gets them engaged in action!

    Lou: Very true comments. There are two things I’d like to point out here, though. First, there are OA journals, including the PLoS family, that will “offer a complete or partial fee waiver for authors who do not have funds to cover publication fees”, so that authors exactly in your situation wouldn’t have to refrain from publishing under a pay-to-publish OA format.(info:

    Second, this is probably not the case for you since you said you’re not linked to an institution, but it has to be treated as a change in business model more than an issue scientists solely should have to deal with. Authors may not be charged to publish under the traditional models, but their institutions are charged large sums for access to these publications (which ends up being an “invisible expense” since researchers aren’t reminded of this every time they access these papers through their institution’s library). What if the University didn’t have to spend this money under this subscription-based model, and instead used it to pay these mentioned publication costs? It’s directly in their interest to have their researchers publishing, I find it hard to believe there would be resistance to this model if costs are reasonable!

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  12. 12. hylopsar 7:28 pm 01/7/2012

    (just noticed you mentioned the waiver thing on your following comment, but in any case, I guess it deserves to be brought up again! ;) )

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  13. 13. MikeTaylor 6:00 am 01/9/2012

    Scientists’ idealism is honorable, and genuinely heartfelt. Few other groups of people really do want the change the world in such a positive, progressive manner. Yet, in a twist of irony, few other groups who prize evidence and free thought systematically follow dogmatic traditions that are directly in conflict with their idealistic world view. Why are some of the smartest people in the country allowing publishing companies to fleece them, their institutions and libraries, the federal government and the american taxpayers of their money?

    Thanks, Kevin, for this very accurate (though heartbreaking) summary of the status quo. Just one quibble with the article — you repeat this very common claim:

    The publishing companies provide editorial assistance and the peer review process.

    They do not. Publishers don’t provide peer-review (and in fact can’t, since they obviously lack the domain-specific expertise required to review for scientific accuracy). Peer review is provided by scientists, not by publishers: it’s just one more service that, out of pure habit, we provide for free to publishers whose interests are exactly opposite to our own. (It’s also vanishinfly rare that publishers pay peer-reviewers anything for their time and expertise.)

    For more on this iniquitous state of affairs, see my recent articles in Times Higher Education at

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  14. 14. MikeTaylor 6:01 am 01/9/2012

    P.S. No facility to Preview comments, no ability to Edit them, no [blockquote] tag. Seriously, Scientific American, was your blogging software written in the 1990s? Come ON.

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  15. 15. MikeTaylor 8:45 am 01/9/2012

    BTW., thanks for the nudge to do something about this. I wrote a comment to the OSTP, which is reproduced on SV-POW! at

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  16. 16. Kevin Z 5:29 pm 01/9/2012

    Mike, you’re absolutely right. My wording should probably say “facilitate” or “herd”. Thanks for making you voice heard! I also contacted my congressman. Being overseas, you can’t, but perhaps you can make that suggestion to your american readers.

    Thanks for the link to your article! I think I missed it earlier. “The status quo is not merely unfortunate, it’s exploitative and immoral. By giving those corporations our time and effort, we are helping to perpetuate it.”

    Exactly! I started doing it last year and explained to a Wiley journal exactly what you said in your Times piece and got a sympathetic “yeah, we understand… ” response. I feel bad his predicament, but change needs to start somewhere and sometime! For me it was here and now!

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  17. 17. Just saying 1:13 pm 01/10/2012

    You say that taxpayer money pays the bills in a user fee model as well, as it comes from a grantees funding. While this may be true in some part (indirects typically cover some of a library’s costs, other sources contribute), you might want to examine the efficiency differences in two prevailing models – user pays and author pays. My belief is that the user fee model makes the best use of scarce resources. Why? Because each grantee pays directly with his or her own funds. You discriminate wisely what you need and what you don’t. There’s extremely little waste. If journals were free to you (through an author pays model), how many more would you “subscribe” to? 5? 10? How do you think the cost of publishing would explode when their demand increases 5 or 10 fold? The author pays model is actually a pure giveaway to publishers. In a few years, it won’t be a $3000 fee for the author. It’ll be $5000, or $7000 just to print more journals that sit on bookshelves, or email alerts with new issues that go unread. In the end, tens of millions of dollars are shifted out of desperately thin research budgets to pay for an enormous and artificial demand premium for journals. If you have a different forecast, I would be interested to hear it.

    I would also say that the very very small, highly educated, affluent community of MDs and PhDs (by national standards) should pay for access to their very specialized and technical journals, while the researchers should be able to use every last scarce penny towards conducting actual research on behalf of their taxpayer investors – particularly since the general taxpayer has NEVER shown an interest in the materials. The OA community and it’s lobbyists have always had an astroturf campaign that use some indignant public or maligned taxpayer to once again give BIG UNIVERSITY something for free.

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  18. 18. Southern Fried Scientist 10:19 am 01/11/2012

    Just sayin’ has a rather narrow view of the scientific community. The journal’s that are open access aren’t seeing a surge in physical subscriptions or printing costs because their access is online. You still have to pay for a hard copy. His first point in empirically false.

    He also seems to forget that many of us work in conservation, environmental justice, and environmental health, where the vast majority of those interested in our results are not “very small, highly educated, affluent community of MDs and PhDs” but stakeholders, including, but not limited to, NGO’s, private citizens, and marginalized groups, many of whom would not otherwise be able to access sources.

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  19. 19. Just saying 11:01 am 01/11/2012

    SFS – You simply cannot take the current nascent OA market and expect that all journals will simply go digital. They won’t. Many many dead tree versions of publications will still be in demand. If they weren’t already, institutions and individuals would certainly opt for the cheaper online-only subscriptions right now. So yes, the demand for dead tree versions would go up. Truth is, for current OA journals, they simply don’t have the revenue to print dead tree versions (hence why many don’t offer it).

    As far as you demographic analysis, the preponderance of subscribes are affluent compared to the national average. You also have a very specialized interest in these journals that the average citizen doesn’t. So why through an author-pays model (where the taxpayer pays the bill via grant funding) would you have the taxpayer pay for access when: a.) they don’t care, and b.) they make far less (national median salary: $40,000). Do you make more than $40,000 per year?

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  20. 20. Southern Fried Scientist 11:19 am 01/11/2012

    You still have to pay for dead tree versions, Open Access or not. You do realize that just about every major journal provides print and online-only subscription options? More and more institutions are opting for online online subscriptions, demand for print versions is going down, across the board, open access and not. Why in the world would that demand increase if more people have access to digital articles?

    As for your second point – because you don’t get to decide who is or is not interested in your research. If the taxpayers have decided the research is worthy of funding, then why wouldn’t the entire research program be funded. Publication is as essential to the scientific process as pipettes.

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  21. 21. hybrid 3:56 pm 01/25/2012

    This should also apply to companies like Boeing having research done for them by the Govt.

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  22. 22. MikeTaylor 11:59 am 01/28/2012

    “The publishing companies provide editorial assistance and the peer review process.”

    Please, do not do the publishers’ PR job by perpetuating this falsehood. Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.

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  23. 23. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 4:04 pm 02/9/2012

    Thanks Mike, I know better and meant to write that they “manage” the peer review process. Though that can be, and certainly is, done without the intervention of publishing companies :)

    Link to this

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