My previous post on Elsevier and the Research Works Act (RWA) stimulated a conversation on Twitter with Benoit Bruneau about the possible impact on the journals of scientific societies of moves to open access publishing. This is an aspect of the debate that has not been discussed in much detail of late. Benoit, who researches cardiovascular disease at UCSF, kindly offered to write a guest post discussing the dilemmas posed to scientific societies by the RWA.
Much has been said about the RWA, and the involvement of big name publishers. Less discussed, but very important for many scientists, is the role that scientific societies and their journals have, and the impact of current or future publishing practices. Some societies, such as the American Association of Immunologists (AAI), the American Society of Nephrology (ASN), the American Heart Association (AHA), and the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI), publish their own journals. Of these, very few (in this list only the ASCI), have an open access policy. Other societies, such as the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB), publish in journals operated by big publishers, such as Elsevier (in the case of SDB’s journal, Developmental Biology). So where do these societies and their journals stand on RWA?
Well in some cases it’s crystal clear. In letters that responded to a “Request for Information” (RFI) by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, regarding “Public Access to Peer- Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting from Federally Funded Research””, the AAI wrote:
“…working in partnership with professional societies and other scholarly publishers offers the federal government the most cost-effective and efficient way of ensuring that private sector, scholarly journals survive, preserving their crucially important service of providing independent, expert peer review (accomplished at publishers’ expense) of government-funded scientific research.”
This refers to their perceived duplication of efforts in having PubMedCentral duplicating published manuscripts. The statement might make sense, if the journals were to offer free access after 12 months. But they continue with:
“…want to express our clear opposition to government mandates which require private sector publishers to make their legally-owned property (i.e., journal manuscripts, published articles and associated data) available online on sites other than our own, or to comply with a government-determined embargo period. These mandates allow the government to take private property without owner authorization or compensation, and threaten the sustainability of our nation’s premier peer-review publishing system.”
So, not so happy about providing free access. They also claim that PMC is an inferior means of disseminating and archiving published material. This is highly debatable, especially the permanence of published work. Finally, they answer many questions posed by the RFI, and include this delightful gem, which we’ve heard from Congresswoman Maloney:
“…increased “free” access is likely to benefit scientists in other nations, whether allies or enemies. In some instances, this will enhance international cooperation in the sciences, but it is not necessarily beneficial to the U.S. economy as even our friendly competitors will gladly take our research findings for free….. Neither publishers, nor the U.S. scientific enterprise, nor the U.S. taxpayer benefits from the “giving away” of our peer-reviewed publications.”
Oh dear. The point really is, these societies make most of their money from their publications, and of course feel threatened.
But then how does ASCI do it, publishing all papers in JCI for free? I don’t have the answer, but perhaps these societies should talk to each other…
In the case of the SDB, it’s a bit more complicated. They too make most of their revenue from their journal. But in this case, they fall under Elsevier’s control, and only receive a fraction of the journal’s revenues (around 10%). What can they do, stuck between a rock and a hard place? Currently they are debating what to do, so the jury is out. The SDB does provide an OA option for HHMI and Wellcome Trust-funded researchers, reasoning that they can afford the $3,000, but that many other researchers can’t. Then why not have a hybrid model such as the Company of Biologists, who publish Development, and offer OA for a fee?
Then the final question is for those of us who are members of these societies. Do we boycott our own society journals? Do we engage the leadership to try to convey our views? There is no clear answer, but it should be something. The editors of the journals are scientists, just like us. They understand, and they will listen. The societies have existed for a long time, and are an important part of science, in assembling scientists with shared interests in the form of conferences and journals, promoting scientific education, amongst other laudable goals. But many have their survival inextricably linked with their closed access journals.
As scientists we must ask ourselves how to help our scientific societies, while promoting open access.
I’m sure Benoit will be happy to respond to any comments that you might want to make.