All relationships suffer tensions from time to time, especially those based on love-hate.
Scientists have a complex relationship with their publishers — they love to get published in high-impact journals (most of which are run by major publishing companies) but hate the abuses of impact factors made by their own community in promotion and funding committees. They applaud the ethos of peer review as a valuable quality-control mechanism and a cornerstone of the amateur ethos of science that has persisted despite the global professionalisation of research, but grumble that publishers get this arduous service for free. They love to see their work in published form — a particular thrill the first time it happens — but complain that they often have to pay to do so, both as authors who have to meet page and colour figure charges, and as readers whose universities must pay subscription charges that place increasing strains on library budgets.
It’s complicated: my sketch does not cover all the nuances and dimensions of the problems. But partly in response to these tensions, and to advance access to publicly funded research, there has been a move over the past decade towards an open access (OA) model of publishing, in which the author pays the costs of publishing and the papers are made freely available to readers: there is no subscription charge. The OA model takes many forms, including new community-sponsored publishers like the Public Library of Science and funding mechanisms that enable cooperating private publishers to offer open access. Not all publishers have warmly embraced the OA movement, seeing it as a threat to subscription model that worked well for a long time, at least before the advent of the internet.
The troubled love-hate liaison between scientists and their publishers is going through a particularly dangerous turn at the moment because of the Research Works Act (RWA), a piece of legislation introduced to the US Congress in December. I read about it last week on Michael Eisen’s blog and was surprised to learn that the act would undermine the OA policy of the NIH, the major US government agency that funds biomedical science. That policy requires
that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.
But the Act demands (with my emphasis) that:
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.
The insidious aspect of the act, apart from its threat to open access, is the use of a kind of double-speak that converts work that is almost entirely publicly funded into the private property of a publisher. It is this claim — an apparent land-grab — that has incensed scientists.
But what has further stoked the fires of this argument is the revelation that one of the sponsors of the bill, NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, has received substantial campaign contributions from executives at Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers in the world.
Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at Berkeley and a co-founder of PLoS, laid out the details clearly on his blog and drew comment from Tom Reller, Vice President for Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier. To his credit, Reller tried to make the case for the publisher. But to my mind that argument incorporates excessive claims about the value that publishers add to final published peer-reviewed papers that report publicly-funded research. Reller was right to point out that management of the peer review process is a non-trivial exercise and incurs real costs, even if the peer reviewers themselves are mostly publicly funded scientists. But he still struck a bum note:
…of course we know peer reviewers aren’t paid. And we know that we, and our journals need them. If you ever reviewed for one of our journals, thank you, and we truly hope you continue to do so. I know all about the issues related to how difficult it is to find quality peer reviewers. You’re often paid by the government, and it is time consuming, we get it.
“We get it”? Perhaps it was a moment of exasperation on the part of Mr Reller, but his gratitude for peer-review was starting to sound like ingratitude. It was not a winning pitch to a community on which you rely. It was a slip of the mask that revealed the hard-edge of a serious business. That same hard edge drives the decisions to fund sponsors of legislation that aims to curb open access. One wonders if the authors of the legislation have had other support from Elsevier?
These are emotive issues — see, for example, this argument and response — but I wanted to look at them coolly. As Eisen points out, it should come as no surprise that a large successful company should lobby and support legislation that is in their commercial interests. This has been happening since parliaments were first formed. But scientists and publishers have to interact — they have shared interests. And that interaction will be healthiest if the discussion of respective interests is held in the open, which is why I was glad to learn of Elsevier’s latest activities.
I started to seriously think about my attitude to scientific publishing and to open access in particular last September when I wrote on the topic in response to a piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian. My blog post led to an extended and informative comment thread — with contributions from scientists and journal editors — that I found very helpful.
This latest episode caused me to think further. On reflection, after the first pulse of anger had passed, I found that I was still angry at Elsevier’s actions. And so, when a request to review a manuscript for an Elsevier journal appeared in my inbox, I opted to decline. I gave as the reason for my refusal the revelations about how the publisher was providing support for the Research Works Act.
This triggered an email from Elsevier which, in the interests of further discussion, I reproduce in part below (again with my emphasis). They make their case:
Fully acknowledging your right to decline reviews wherever you feel appropriate, I am taking the liberty of providing you with some background information on the Research Works Act, hoping of course that you might change your mind.
Our support for the Research Works Act comes down to a question of preferring voluntary partnership with government agencies and other funders to promote access to research works, rather than being subjected to inflexible government mandates like the NIH policy, which do not take into account the needs of different journals.
One of Elsevier’s primary missions is to work towards providing universal access to high-quality scientific information in sustainable ways. We support the bipartisan bill, which seeks to prevent US government policies, like the one imposed by the NIH, that mandate the dissemination of journal articles published and funded by the private sector. Elsevier and other publishers have embraced and nurtured a whole range of access options to ensure broad dissemination – author pays journals, delayed access, manuscript posting, and patient access, to name a few. We’ve worked constructively with a number of government agencies to develop new ways to expand access to journal articles reporting on, analyzing and interpreting agency-funded research. But like other publishers and societies we have always opposed the adoption or extension of the NIH policy, which restricts the author’s freedom to choose where to publish and undermines the sustainability of journals published by the private sector. The legislation is an effort to prevent such unsustainable policies.
Congresswoman Maloney of New York City co-sponsored this legislation quite simply because New York is one of the country’s leading publishing states. There are more than 300 publishers that employ more than 12,000 New Yorkers, many who live or work in or around New York City. Elsevier and many other publishers have offices located in Congresswoman Maloney’s district. We support her because she has been a strong supporter of this important industry, our employees and good public policy. And we believe the Research Works Act is good public policy.
There is nothing in the Research Works Act that prevents an author from publishing in an open access journal. Furthermore, Elsevier works proactively to achieve universal access to all its products and services, publishes eight open access journals, offers authors the option to sponsor open access to their article in over 1100 titles, and has a flexible green open access policy. While we support measures to curb open access mandates for government funded research, we have consistently supported the NIH research posting policy since its inception in 2005 as a voluntary provision. In other words, our basic position has remained unchanged.
I hope this provides you with some background regarding our standpoint in this issue.
If you have any questions, I would be more than willing to answer them.
While acknowledging the work and added value that publishers certainly bring, this position does not properly address the fact that for most papers the research work and the effort of peer review is funded publicly. Nor am I convinced by Elsevier’s contention that the NIH policy undermines the sustainability of private sector journals. A study commissioned by the Wellcome Trust in 2004 (PDF) compared the costs of subscription and OA models of publishing and concluded that OA was sustainable and likely to be marginally cheaper. Perhaps those conclusions need to be updated for 2012. I would be grateful if anyone could point me to a relevant analysis.
Elsevier’s assertion that the RWA does not prevent authors for publishing in OA journals is certainly true. I have to say the current fracas is propelling me further in that direction (and I am by no means alone in this – see here and here). There are concerns about the possible impact of committing to OA-only journals — loss of prestige, threat to the careers of junior colleagues, loss of grant income (as I mentioned towards the end of this post), so this is not a decision to be taken lightly.
But if scientists believe, as I do, that the fruits of their publicly-funded work should be available to the widest possible audience, we have to think about the most cost-effective ways of doing that. Of course, many have already done so; I am playing catch-up here but so are many of my colleagues, which is why I wanted to think through these issues in the open.
Scientists — and the public — are the major players in this arena and so have the scope to influence events. I am not looking for a shouting match but we need more dialogue between all parties to move the relationship forward, even if that sometimes involves difficult arguments or refusals to co-operate.
Update (29-1-12): For anyone looking for a handy background briefing on Open Access Publishing, this POST Note from the UK Parliament is very useful.