Two related issues on the US academic publishing business were widely reported upon in the media in the last 2 weeks. The first was the National Institutes of Health policy on public access to research findings. The second, the proposal of a bill by Republican Senator Cornyn (Texas) and Democratic Senator Lieberman (Connecticut) requiring public access to federally funded research.

On February 3, 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a Policy on Enhancing Public Access to Archived Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research. Although the NIH strongly encourages that a manuscript be made available to other researchers and the general public immediately after it has been published in a journal, the Policy allows an author to delay the manuscript’s release for up to 12 months. Participation in the Public Access Policy is voluntary. The rate of submission to the system in the first 8 months has been less than 4 percent of the total number of articles estimated to be eligible.

The Chronicle however reports that momentum continues to build outside the NIH, and outside the United States, for mandatory posting of manuscripts in centralized free online repositories. In April, the European Commission released a report (pdf) calling for a guarantee of free access to all publicly sponsored research.

But in May, the two senators from Connecticut and Texas introduced a bill that would require every federal agency that sponsors more than $100-million annually in research to establish an online repository and make its grantees deposit their articles within six months of publication. The bill would apply to 11 agencies, including the NIH, the National Science Foundation, and NASA.

“It will ensure that US taxpayers do not have to pay twice for the same research – once to conduct it and a second time to read it,” Senator Cornyn told Congress.

Obviously, this proposal ignited a fierce reaction from the scientific publishing industry. Representatives from the publishers come with all kind of reactions:

Science addresses this issue:

Some publishers argue that there’s no evidence the public is as interested in, say, high energy physics papers as in health research. “You’re just expanding this willy-nilly on the assumption that there’s the same clamor,” says Allan Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs for the Association of American Publishers. Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, argues that if the bill became law, it could be especially damaging to “small niche area” journals in disciplines such as ecology that have not yet experimented much with open-access journals that recoup publication costs from authors rather than subscribers.

And so does the New York Times:

Scientific data is easily misinterpreted, said Joann Boughman, executive vice president of the American Society of Human Genetics, publisher of The American Journal of Human Genetics. “Consumers themselves are saying, ‘We have the right to know these things as quickly as we can.’ That is not incorrect. However, wherever there is a benefit, there is a risk associated with it.”

And the Washington Post:

Patricia S. Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, promised a fight. “It is frustrating that we can’t seem to get across to people how expensive it is to do the peer review, edit these articles and put them into a form everyone can understand,” Schroeder said. [Isn’t the peer review something that academics do…for free…? Ed.]

And the Guardian:

But the Association of American Publishers warned that the law would jeopardise the integrity of the scientific publishing process. Association member Brian Crawford warned it “would create unnecessary costs for taxpayers, place an unwarranted burden on research investigators, and expropriate the value-added investments made by scientific publishers, many of them not-for-profit associations who depend on publishing income to support pursuit of their scholarly missions”.

I guess there are a lot of vested interests here.. The bill will probably discussed later this year. It would be about time for some fundamental changes in the publishing industry. To me it remains a strange phenomenon that an academic writes an article or book for free, then his or her colleagues do the peer review for free and then (often after 2 years or so) they have to pay to get (on-line) access to the articles or books. Or do I fail to see something here?

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