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How To Provide Open Access?

June 5, 2013

Scholarly publishers want to keep hosting taxpayer-funded research that will soon be made public free of charge. The publishers unveiled a plan to do so Tuesday by arguing they could save the federal government money. The plan also allows publishers to keep at least a piece of a pie they now own.

Research universities are also planning to unveil their own system in coming weeks that would have them, not publishers, as the main hosts of open-access research funded by about 15 federal agencies.

Open-access advocates were skeptical of the publishers’ proposal, which comes as the Obama administration works on the details of its open-access policy. The advocates cited years of industry opposition to open-access efforts.

The open-access movement in America won a major victory in February when the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy told federal agencies to work on plans to release federally funded studies to the public. The policy applies to future unclassified research by agencies with research budgets of $100 million or more.

The country spends about $65 billion on such research now and nearly half of that is funded by the National Institutes of Health, which is already making public the results of the research it funds on its PubMed Central repository.

The publishers’ response – known as the Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States, or CHORUS – would preempt the creation of a similar government-backed database for the newly freed research. The project was announced by the Association of American Publishers.

The Obama administration’s plan is expected to free up research within a year of its publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The publishers want to create a search engine or web portal for articles that become free following that one-year embargo. The publishers’ CHORUS site would then direct users to the journal webpage where the article was originally published and allow anyone to access the post-embargo article for free.

Journals may be able to continue to monetize the open-access content this way. For instance, publishers would pay fees to support CHORUS and those fees would be passed onto journal subscribers or to authors who pay to have their articles published. Journals websites could also advertise to users who come to their site for the free articles.  

Fred Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics and a member of the CHORUS steering committee, said the publishers’ plan is to create a cost-effective solution for the federal government, which was given no new money to comply with the open access requirements.  He said the effort would be built atop existing efforts, including CrossRef, which already weaves together information about articles published by 4,300 different publishers.

“As a group of publishers who have formed the CrossRef organization a couple years ago, we basically felt we had the infrastructure to provide the agencies with a no cost or very low cost solution,” Dylla said.

He said the goal is to prevent what he called the duplication of a central repository like PubMed. It also keeps eyeballs on publishers’ websites.

“You want the eyeballs going to your site because that’s what someone who pays a subscription will want to see,” Dylla said.

Michael Eisen, a University of California at Berkeley biologist and co-founder of the open access publisher Public Library of Science, called the publishers’ proposal “nakedly incompatible” with the spirit of the open-access movement.

“I think it’s a fairly cynical attempt on the part of the publishers to undermine PubMed Central and the government’s efforts to expand it,” he said.

Universities and libraries are also working on their own plans, said John Vaughn, the executive vice president of the Association of American Universities, which represents a select group of major research universities. He said the land-grant universities, the AAU and the Association of Research Libraries are “pretty far along” with that plan.

Vaughn said they are looking to create a federated system of repositories in each state that are interconnected. He said this would ensure there is not a “single point of failure.”

Still, he appeared anxious to avoid a head-on collision with the publishers.

“What we want to avoid is It’s got to be your plan or our plan and let’s have a shootout at the O.K. Corral,” he said.

The big player, of course, is the federal government, which is working on the final policy.

Vaughn said there were “impressive dimensions” to the publishers’ plan. But he worried that publishers would not provide easy and simple access to articles.

He said there are also concerns that scholars would not be able to do mass downloads of articles and do data mining of open-access texts.

There may also be deep skepticism among some in the open access community about publishers’ intentions.

Michael Tanner, vice president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the government’s major cost is funding the research itself -- not creating a central repository to make the articles accessible. He compared the new hosting costs that government would have to pay to the cost of creating a card catalog – a cost, to be sure, but nothing compared to buying all the books in a library.

The publishers’ plan would also only make content available to participating publishers, which could leave out taxpayer-funded research that appears in journals maintained by non-participating publishers, Tanner said. That, he said, might force the creation of another repository to host articles that would not be available on CHORUS.

Still, Tanner was not ready to dismiss the publishers’ effort.

“I think it’s good that they’ve put forth a proposal,” he said. “I think the research communities and the universities will want to look carefully at how it will work and how it will be governed and whether it will, in fact, be comprehensive and the best solution in totality.”

Eisen also questioned the logic of the universities’ plan. He said having multiple repositories defeated the point of having a centralized government-backed database.

“I don’t see a practical point – there may be a political point for doing it this way – of not having a single archive for where all this stuff goes,” Eisen said.

 

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