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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?



Ruedi Lindegger

Reviewers and editors are some kind of filter system for the limited space in paper journals. There are or will be also other/new filtering systems like (scholarly) social media or altmetrics to tell which paper is significant or brilliant.
Open Access Journals perhaps only try to transform the old paper model to the web days. There will be new forms of scholarly communications, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM22JuiWYgE&feature=youtu.be


You note: "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."

Remember when the Feds tried to create a simple A&I service called PubScience that was shutdown because the publishers thought it went too far into their territory? I can see the Feds creating a publishing outlet as an option for scientists. The Federal funded scientist could publish in the Federal Journal of Science (or whatever title) for a nominal charge that is built into the grant (say $1,350) or publish in an OA Journal (many are free or use a publisher that has author fees), or decide to pay extra to a commercial outfit since they are sooooo much better than the other journals. http://fakeelsevier.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/dear-elsevier-employees-with-love-from-fakeelsevier/#comment-85

Also, nobody is forcing Elsevier to accept the papers that have Federal funding. They could just say "Oops, sorry, you have an NIH grant, we can't publish your article - go somewhere else."


A couple of points:

- the argument is that publishers aren't adding enough value, and that they aren't delivering enough innovation. It would be more helpful if you addressed these points rather than fall in with the publishers

- careful what you wish for...some funders are running peer review very successfully, for example the UK HTA programme

T Scott

To Joe: My point here is only that the publishers are apparently doing something that the policy makers feel is essential and which they, for some reason, have decided not to try to duplicate. In my previous post I suggest something similar to what you say here -- let's have a requirement that funded researchers publish in OA journals, and provide, within the grant, some mechanism for funding that.

Regarding Elsevier just refusing to publish those papers, yes, in theory they could refuse to take those articles, although for any journal that publishes a substantial number of papers that come from funded research that would be suicide. When you offer somebody two options (refuse to publish the papers, or comply with the policy) and one of the options will put them out of business it's not really much of a choice.

It kinda reminds me of the reactions of librarians to the suggestion that they should just quit buying Elsevier products if those products are so grossly overpriced.

It's also worth pointing out that Elsevier was providing authors' final versions of NIH-funded papers back when the policy was voluntary. Before the policy became mandatory, compliance was hovering around 7%. It would've been around 3-4% if it weren't for the documents that Elsevier was supplying. It's not the deposit that Elsevier objects to, it's the compulsion.

I'm not defending Elsevier here -- I strongly disagree with their support of RWA and I'm one of very few librarians who has walked away from the Big Deal. I just think that the situation is more complex than many of Elsevier's most vocal critics apparently do.

T Scott

And to Ben -- I'm not falling in with the publishers. I don't fall in with anybody.

I agree with some policies of some publishers and disagree strongly with some policies of others. I'm a strong supporter of OA (and helped to make the JMLA the first major open access library journal back in 2000), but think it should be to the version of record. I disagree with SPARC on tactics and I think FRPAA is a poor legislative solution.

I like the idea of funders setting up peer review mechanisms and wish that NIH would take a stronger role in supporting Gold OA.

All I'm trying to address in this post is that the policies make it explicit that there is something publishers do that the policy makers feel is essential. I would certainly agree that some publishers add little value and many are perhaps not being as innovative as we might wish, but I'm afraid that a blanket statement that "publishers" aren't doing this or that without acknowledging the tremendous variation among publishers is kind of meaningless.


Concerning "JMLA the first major open access library journal back in 2000."

Huh? -- ISTL was open access way back in 1991, See http://istl.org and http://istl.org/sts-000.txt for the first issue.

T Scott

I stand corrected! Kudos to ISTL.

Jean Shipman

This goes along with what I often say about librarians - we are way too busy for being obsolete. Many find value in what we do despite the saying that librarians and libraries are no longer needed.

There's a value that publishers bring to the scholarly process as was emphasized by our recent local OA research mandate initiative, that was not passed. Collectively, we didn't want to place just manuscripts into our local repository - but peer reviewed, publisher approved and accepted manuscripts. So there is recognized value indeed.

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