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In Whose Interest?

February 21, 2009

At first glance, it seems that the research world is united against the Federal Research Public Access Act. Scholarly associations are lining up to express their anger over the bill, which would have federal agencies require grant recipients to publish their research papers -- online and free -- within six months of their publication elsewhere.

Dozens of scholarly groups have joined in two letters -- one organized by the Association of American Publishers and one by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. To look at the signatories (and the tones of the letters), it would appear that there's a wide consensus that the legislation is bad for research. The cancer researchers are against it. The education researchers are against it. The biologists are against it. The ornithologists are against it. The anthropologists are against it. All of these groups are joining to warn that the bill could undermine the quality and economic viability of scholarly publishing.

There's no doubt that many scholars do object to the legislation. But a rebellion of sorts is brewing online, where scholars who are, in theory, represented by some of these groups argue that the legislation would help research, that the scholarly associations are selling out their rank and file's interests to prop up their publishing arms, and that the debate points to some underlying tensions about academic publishing in the digital age.

These scholars -- with the leaders of this informal movement coming from anthropology -- want Congress to know that their associations aren't speaking for them, and they also want to draw attention to the fact that some scholarly groups didn't sign on.

The bill that set off this debate is based on the premise -- popular in Congress -- that if taxpayers pay for research, they should be able to see the results of that research. That premise is being attached to a larger debate in scholarly publishing over "open access." Proponents say that systems that provide for speedy, online, free publication assure the broadest possible access to cutting-edge knowledge. Critics of the idea say that the costs associated with journal subscriptions pay for quality control -- and that open access is making their economic models fall apart because it removes the incentive for people (or, in the case of scholarly journals, institutions) to subscribe.

There are of course many types of open access -- and professors and publishers have a range of views beyond simple pro/con. But in the reaction to the new legislation -- sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- has been swift and strong. The letter from the Association of American Publishers said that the bill would destroy the peer review system that assured journal quality and would turn federal agencies into competitors with scholarly publishers. The letter from the biologists' group said that the legislation would do even more damage -- hurting patient care in hospitals because the bill's adoption would harm the continuing medical education programs subsidized by journals.

Some scholarly groups sent their own detailed letters as well. The American Sociological Association sent a letter distinguishing the federal investment in research (which supports the research studies) from the scholarly publishers' investment (the peer review process). "Federal research support is certainly necessary, but it is by no means sufficient to support the conversion of basic research data into useful material for consumption by either scholars or the public," the sociology association wrote. "Mandating that authors submit copy edited material after publication acceptance does not address the continuing fiscal drain on the publisher that would result from a government-mandated free public access to the publisher's copyrighted material."

In announcing their opposition to the bill, most scholarly associations have focused on the integrity of peer review and the quality of research. But the American Anthropological Association acknowledged that the "underlying concern" it had with the legislation was its impact on the business model being used to sell access to the association's journals and on "revenue generation."

Those remarks have led to a series of attacks on the association, in which it is being accused of ignoring the way many of its members would benefit from greater access to research results. On Anthropology.net, the association was taken to task for "ignorant opposition" to the bill. On Savage Minds, the association's position is called "so, so misguided." By being honest that it was concerned about its bottom line, it appears that the anthropology group has upset its own members.

Peter Suber, director of Open Access Project, said that these criticisms showed that the anthropology association (and others like it) have a conflict of interest. "They pretend to be speaking in the interests of scholarship, but they are really speaking for the interests of their publishing arms." Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College, said that journal subscriptions end up supporting plenty of good things -- educational outreach and annual meetings for associations are examples -- but that doesn't justify opposing open access. If associations want to support annual meetings and outreach programs, they need to charge their members, seek foundation support, or develop other strategies, he said, rather than relying on journal revenue.

A spokesman for the anthropology association acknowledged that the group is aware of the criticism, but said no one at the group would comment on it or on the decision making that went into the group's stance.

The criticism of the letters opposing the bill has also drawn attention to which groups did not sign on. While the letters speak about the breadth of agreement on the issue, some major scholarly publishers intentionally are staying away from the lobbying effort. Some of those just didn't find this fight relevant -- if most articles are financed without federal funds, it may be irrelevant. But among the associations notably absent from any of the letters criticizing the bill is the American Physical Society.

Martin Blume, editor in chief for the society, which publishes nine journals, said the physicists' association has already been functioning under a system in which authors may immediately post versions of their work anywhere that doesn't charge -- without any time lag. "Given what we already allow, we couldn't really oppose this," he said.

The society's journals are a big operation -- more than 30,000 articles are submitted a year and the budget is about $30 million, with some institutions paying upwards of $20,000 for full access. Blume said that the availability of free journal articles has forced his shop to improve services, and that institutions are still willing to pay. For example, all articles in the society's journals have links to other relevant articles from an archive -- available to subscribers -- going back to 1893. That can't be replicated by scholars just posting their work online at a federal site, Blume said. So this model makes it possible for a disciplinary group to support expensive journals and not oppose open access, he said. At the same time, he acknowledged that "disciplines are different."

And he said that he does have concerns about the cost of the legislation. If the National Science Foundation and other agencies create archives for articles to be posted, that will require time and money, he said -- at a time that he would rather see the NSF focused on research.

Not all of the associations that have refrained from joining the campaign, however, are as comfortable with open source as is the American Physical Society.

Michael Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association, said his group sees too many arguments on both sides to take a position. (While many political scientists work in areas that do not receive government support, many others do receive funds from the NSF, and the APSA's journals publish a range of work, including topics in areas that receive government support.) "At this point, we're close observers on the sidelines," he said.

Many in the association like open access and want to be able to see more research. But Brintnall said that others shared the views of the bill's critics that the peer review process deserved some protection. "We're talking about more than a revenue source, but about how we organize peer review," Brintnall said. He said it was important to approach these discussions from the perspective of preserving the ability of associations to have good peer review in place. "There needs to be some kind of business model that works," he said.

How to do that and also respond to demands for open access? "It's a complicated set of questions," Brintnall said.

 

 

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