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The Arrogance of Conquerors

What Does Open Access Cost?

In January of 2004, I drove over to Emory University for a seminar on Open Access.    One of the speakers was Harold Varmus, former NIH director and one of the primary drivers behind the Public Library of SciencePLoS Biology had finally been launched just a few months before and, while I was pretty familiar with what Varmus had to say in print, I was curious to see what his presentation would be like in person.

He started out, in standard fashion, listing the points he was going to cover.   Among them, he said that he would address the issue of the scholarly societies and how PLoS might be able to help them make the transition to open access publishing.  I perked up at this, because we were thick into the initial mudslinging between PLoS and the scholarly societies, and this sounded like it might be a move in a more positive direction.

However, when Varmus got to that point in his talk, the substance of it was that PLoS could serve as an example for what all of the scholarly societies ought to be doing.  That was it.  No practical advice.  No reaching out.   His discussion of funding issues was vague and disappointing.  I left the auditorium thinking that if this had been a roomful of venture capitalists that Varmus was trying to seduce into investing in his project, they would have shut him down after ten minutes and told him to come back when he had something that actually approached a business plan.

It was discouraging because I do believe that the elimination of subscription barriers to scholarly research would definitely be a public good.  But I also understand that publishing costs money and that there are very many different economic models among the myriad of publishers and that, for some of them, figuring out how to change the economics to reduce or eliminate their dependence on subscription revenue is a formidable task indeed.  The tone of moral superiority adopted by Varmus and some of the other open access partisans has not helped the situation at all.

The economic issues and the risk of unintended consequences are what Marty Frank addresses in his editorial in NEJM this week.  (Frank M.  Access to the scientific literature -- a difficult balance.  N Engl J Med 2006 Apr 13;354(15):1552:5).    Marty is the executive director of the American Physiological Society and much of his focus in his many years in that role has been to promote and develop the publishing program of the APS, and to keep it within the scientific community.  He has always resisted offers from the commercial publishers to buy him out, despite the potential financial windfall for the society, and in doing so has thought of himself as one of the "good guys" of scientific publishing.  Imagine his surprise (and his annoyance) to find himself, and his colleagues among the society publishers, castigated for being on the wrong side of the march of history.  His response was to found the DC Principles coalition and he has been, perhaps, the most vocal critic of open access and, in particular during the last year or so, of the NIH Public Access policy.   

Marty and I may disagree on many of the specific points in the debate, but we share a commitment to the basic principle of making the scholarly literature as widely accessible as possible.  Our differences may turn on the implications of what is actually "possible".  In his well-reasoned editorial, Marty raises a number of questions about the choices that face the scientific community as we try to address the challenges and opportunities that we're faced with.  They're the right questions.  He and I (and many of the others involved in the debate) may come up with different answers, but the questions cannot be ignored.  For that reason alone, his editorial is a valuable and important contribution to the discussion.  The open access partisans will do their cause no good if they simply dismiss it out of hand.



I also attended that talk by Varmus at Emory, and agree that he was vague about the concerns of scholarly societies. Having heard the talk on two more occasions in New York, I can say that he is still vague on this crucial point (even though I like his presentation over all.) Varmus is an advocate in his PLoS role, which makes it easy to overlook tough questions. By the way, John Willinsky has considered the fate of scholarly societies more carefully than Varmus:

There is no doubt that Martin Frank wants to do what is best for science, and that he is asking the right questions. But one does not have to be an open access zealot to recognize a serious weakness in his argument.

He always posits a "zero-sum game" between publication costs and research funding. If NIH spends a relatively small sum to bolster PubMed Central, Frank fears that these exact funds could have been used to find a cure for diabetes. If only PMC did not exist, the scientific enterprise would be crucially advanced--That seems to be the argument.

Yes, there is never enough money to go around. Hard choices must be made, and publishing of all varieties costs money. Even so, Frank should not create a false separation between the research process and publishing the results. They are different steps in the same process, not two entirely different projects.

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