Previous month:
December 2011
Next month:
May 2012

What value do publishers bring to public access articles?

The complaint that publishers add little or no value to the scholarly publishing process is one of the most common soundbites used by the OA partisans.  And yet, if this were true, why would the NIH Public Access Policy or FRPAA be structured the way that they are?

Although the phrasing that is typically used is along the lines of "taxpayers fund the research so they are entitled to read the results of that research at no additional charge" that's not exactly what the mandates are actually after.  Several commentators have suggested that the public's entitlement could be met by making the research progress reports that are required by all funding agencies available.  Some agencies already have systems available to do that. 

As Phil Davis points out in The Scholarly Kitchen, recent studies show that fewer than half of NIH-funded clinical trials actually result in published articles within 30 months.  So wouldn't access to progress reports be a huge improvement over a focus on published articles?   Given the ratio of funded studies to published articles it is clear that neither the NIH Public Access Policy nor FRPAA are or could be very successful in achieving the goal of providing access to all the results of federally funded research.

But that's not actually what those policies are trying to achieve.   It's only after a publisher has accepted an article for publication that NIH or FRPAA is interested in getting a version of it.  Argue all you want about whether or not the publisher adds value, but these mandates are very explicit that there is something that publishers do that is absolutely essential.

It has something to do with peer review apparently.  Although again the partisans are quick to point out that the reviews are done for free and the decision is made by an editor who is getting, at best, a tiny honorarium, and that whatever it is that the publisher contributes, it can't be very much or be very costly.

So why do we need the publishers?  Why doesn't the NIH policy or FRPAA establish their own independent peer review process if peer review is so important, but so cheap?  Then the publishers couldn't complain that they were providing something of value for which they are not being compensated.

But I haven't seen anything like that suggested anywhere.  The NIH policy and FRPAA absolutely depend on publishers contributing something.  How can something of so little value be so absolutely essential?


We Can Do Better Than FRPAA

SPARC's greatest rhetorical achievement has been to establish the equivalence of support for FRPAA with support for Open Access.  If you're on the right side of the issue and believe that the public must have free access to at least the author's final version of peer reviewed published papers, then you must be in support of FRPAA.  If you question FRPAA then you must be in the pocket of the evil publishers, deviously trying to lock away the results of federally funded research from the deserving public.

But I'm troubled by FRPAA's willingness to make do with the author's final manuscript and with the scant lip service that it pays to interoperability, data-mining, and preservation.  I think its one size fits all approach doesn't reflect the actual diversity of approaches to the literature among disciplines, and that its unwillingness to engage in some level of compromise with the publishing community sets up an us/them framework that has already done considerable damage to the scholarly community and that makes enemies of people who, in fact, have much more aligned interests than is generally recognized.   Most worrisome of all, perhaps, the fact that FRPAA is presented as THE solution to public access gets in the way of productive discussion about how we might achieve a better path to open access.

The report from the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, now two years old, still reflects the complexity of issues pretty well, and I'm encouraged by the fact that OSTP's RFI process clearly reflects those concerns.   Although the report doesn't specify a particular policy approach it does outline pretty well the issues that ought to be balanced in the development of such policies.

There have been a variety of ideas floated over the years that are worth looking at in developing a policy approach that improves on FRPAA's flaws, in particular the linking proposal that was made by a coalition of 57 not-for-profit publishers to NIH back in 2005/6, as well as Stuart Shieber's 2009 paper "Equity for Open-Access Publishing".

Elements that might be incorporated into such policies would include requiring that grantees publish in OA journals (whether fully OA or hybrid), that metadata be submitted to granting agencies to link back to the Version of Record, that standards for data-mining and interoperability be developed across all of the federal granting agencies, and that publishers either adopt robust preservation/archiving strategies on their own, or participate in "trusted" endeavors (however those turn out to be defined).

Policies along these lines would privilege the Version of Record, eliminate the embargo period, and emphasize the development of standards for interoperability.  They would provide a mechanism to encourage subscription publishers to develop fully OA business models, while injecting a level of market competition that could help to hold publication fees down.

They would also bump up against some issues of academic freedom by limiting where scientists could choose to publish, they would result in providing subsidies to commercial publishers for moving to OA, and they would not necessarily result in government controlled repositories like PubMed Central. 

So there's still plenty to argue about in the details.    But now is the time to have those arguments.  With the publishing industry already experimenting in numerous ways with OA business models, with many publishers on record opposing RWA, while stopping short of endorsing FRPAA, and with the OSTP folks sifting through all of the comments in response to the RFI, now is the time to move past the limitations of FRPAA and try to engage fully with all of the stakeholders to achieve immediate open access to the Version of Record.  Why in the world would we want to spend the next year engaging in a legislative fight that, even if it was won, wouldn't get us close to that?


RWA/FRPAA -- SPARC misses an opportunity

Along with much of the rest of libraryland I've been watching with great interest the flurry that followed the introduction of the "Reinvigorate SPARC Act".  Filed shortly before Christmas, it wasn't until the exuberant AAP press release started making the rounds in early January that...

What?  Oh.... Right.  Sorry -- I meant the "Research Works Act".  I got the title confused with the effect.

I was both depressed and astonished when I saw the SSP press release.  Just at the point when the OSTP RFI on access to peer reviewed publications promised at least the possibility of taking the discussion a step forward and getting past the simplistic arguments we've suffered for the last few years, this poorly written piece of inflammatory legislation could have no possible effect but to inflame the partisans.

And, of course, the predictable is what happened -- blog hysteria.  An assault on Open Access! Trying to shut down PubMed Central!  Evil Publishers!  Enemies of science!

But... as one waded through the muck of hyperbole and righteous outrage, one could begin to discern some occasional glimmers of discussion of real issues.  The fact that the research community was more engaged is certainly a positive -- even if much of that engagement is simplistic and riddled with error.  Still, you could find people raising substantive issues:  What is the appropriate role of the government?  What value do publishers add?  Would research progress reports be sufficient to address the public's right to research results and if not, why not?

That many publishers, including many members of AAP, came out against RWA gave me hope.  On my better days, I began to believe that as bone-headed as RWA is, maybe its introduction would actually do some good.

And then came the re-introduction of FRPAA to make sure that doesn't happen.  Now, instead of discussing the real complexities of scholarly publishing, the real challenges and opportunities, we can have letter writing campaigns and sloganeering, pep rallies and resolutions and press releases.

And we can waste another year.

One might have hoped that SPARC would take advantage of the interest in these issues that the RWA has sparked among the research community, as well as the divisions it has revealed among members of the publisher community.  They could have tried to foster some discussion among those communities to see if we've learned anything from the last few years.  Maybe we could work together to craft new and better legislative proposals that would achieve open access in a way that resulted in greater buy-in from all stakeholders.

But instead of seizing the opportunity, SPARC apparently prefers to continue the adversarial combat that will have little effect other than shutting down creative discussion.  It's a shame.

There are alternatives.  The American Association of University Presses has issued a statement opposing both RWA and FRPAA and supporting the America COMPETES legislation that led to the recent OSTP RFI.  We have an opportunity to move forward.  Let's not blow it by getting bogged down in legislative trench warfare.



The Great Age of Librarians

There were only ever two things that I really wanted to do as a member of the Medical Library Association -- to edit the association's research journal The Bulletin of the Medical Library Association (now The Journal of ...) and to deliver the Janet Doe Lecture.  As it happens, over the nearly thirty years that I've been a member I've been able to be involved in a very wide range of things that have been tremendously engaging and rewarding, but those were still always the top two.  I was able to do the first from 2000 to 2006, and I did the latter this past May in Minneapolis.

The Picture1lecture, "Breaking the Barriers of Time and Space: the Dawning of thPicture2e Great Age of Librarians" is now up on PubMed Central.  (It's also streaming on the MLA11 conference site but only conference registrants can get at that -- the main drawback in not being able to see the video version is that you don't see the slides of Josie helping me write it.)

Pat asked me the other day if there was anything I'd change about it now, and I was honestly able to say that there isn't.  The lectureship is awarded a good fifteen months before you actually have to deliver the damn thing (and, to be honest, I'd been thinking about it for quite awhile before that, knowing I'd been nominated).  That's a wonderful luxury.  I had time to think about the issues and to draft and re-draft and I was very happy with the end result.

Delivering it was a ton of fun.  I've never been that well prepared for a presentation before (and likely never will be again).  The Bearded Pigs played until late the night before, so by the time I got to the ballroom early that morning I was running on a nicely buzzy mix of adrenalin, four hours of sleep and a bit of whisky hangover.  The AV techs were champs and I knew right away that I was in good hands.  (Good AV techs are always worth more than they get paid).

The message is simple -- in the digital age, libraries just aren't as important anymore, but librarians are more important than ever.  Our libraries definitely remain important tools, but we are oh so much more, and have so much more to offer as long as we refuse to be bound by the constraints of our buildings and traditional organizations. 

I've gotten involved in a project here called The Edge of Chaos which is intended to generate innovative solutions to wicked problems.  The physical locus will be on the top floor of my building, but it's the virtual/social community that will be critically important.  I met with the steering committee (which is called The Naked Catfish) this morning and told them it made sense for the librarians to be intimately involved with this because we've been living on the edge of chaos for a decade or more.

And I like it here.