The legislation [the Research Works Act] is aimed at preventing regulatory interference with private-sector research publishers in the production, peer review and publication of scientific, medical, technical, humanities, legal and scholarly journal articles.
But do open access policies by Federal agencies really amount to regulatory interference with private sector publishers? I think this overstates their case. NIH’s policy, for instance, requires researchers who receive NIH support to place their peer-reviewed, published articles in a repository that allows open access to those publications after a 12 month embargo.
There are technical legal differences between such embargoes and patents, but the effect is similar. Publishers retain their rights to charge for access to the articles they publish for a certain amount of time (in this case 12 months), until the embargo expires. People who can wait 12 months to read the article will be able to get it for free.
As Harvard University argues in its response to OSTP’s request for information about open access policies, such embargoes significantly reduce the usefulness of open access policies:
If the NIH policy is flawed, it is for allowing needlessly long delays before the public gains access to this body of publicly funded research, and for allowing needless restrictions on the public use and reuse of this research.
But such embargoes do protect publishers’ rights to charge for access to the articles they publish while they are in effect. Publishers are also able to charge researchers whose articles they publish a fee to make their articles immediately available by open access. Moreover, such embargoes would even allow us to attempt to measure someone’s need for an article or an author’s expectation of the demand for the article in terms of their willingness to pay for access.
Embargoes are not enough, however:
This [private publishing] sector represents tens of thousands of articles which report on, analyze and interpret original research; more than 30,000 U.S. workers; and millions of dollars invested by publishers in staff, editorial, technological, capital and operational funding of independent peer review by specialized experts.
The message is clear: unless the Research Works Act is passed, 30,000 jobs and millions of dollars are at risk! And that’s not the worst of it: American COMPETITIVENESS is also at risk:
North American-based science journal publishers alone account for 45% of all peer-reviewed papers published annually for researchers worldwide.
Again, the message is clear: pass the Research Works Act, or America will fall behind the rest of the world!
Private sector publishers are also presented as producing, peer reviewing, and publishing articles for researchers. The fact is, however, it is at least as accurate to claim that the articles are produced, peer reviewed, and published by researchers.
But this doesn’t stop the Association of American Publishers from claiming that both they and scholarly researchers are being taken advantage of by unfair government regulators:
The Research Works Act will prohibit federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles that report on research which, to some degree, has been federally-funded but is produced and published by private sector publishers receiving no such funding. It would also prevent non-government authors from being required to agree to such free distribution of these works.
Private sector publishers no doubt have reasons not like open access policies — though suggesting such polices allow for “unauthorized free public dissemination” of articles begs the question. Scholarly authors, however, would never object to the free distribution of their articles. After all, authors do not get paid when their articles are downloaded; but unless their articles are read, they will not have any impact. Without wide distribution, in fact, authors cannot receive the sort of payback they expect from their articles (internal payback in the form of citations and satisfaction of tenure and promotion criteria, for example, and perhaps non-academic payback in the form of their work having a broader societal impact).
The question is why researchers do not simply publish their articles online, say in the form of a blog, and bypass private sector publishers altogether. The answer, in large part, is prepublication peer review. Peer review is the sine qua non of academic articles. Moreover, administering prepublication peer review of articles is something an author cannot obviously do on his or her own. But this raises two additional questions:
- Does open access really threaten peer review?
- Is administration of peer review by private sector publishers the only option for prepublication review of manuscripts?
I’ll address both questions in future posts.