Explorations and ideas at the intersection between Evolution and Ecology

Scientists, Fight For Access!


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!

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

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