Monday, March 27, 2006

Of value and money

In a recent missive to all ACS (American Chemical Society) members, the Society’s President, E. Ann Nalley, warned against the dangers of jeopardising the tremendously useful, yet complex, journals-based system of publishing scientific research. In an open letter on her blog, OA activist Heather Morrison reacted to this, extolling the virtues of barrier-free access to the scientific research literature.

One might be forgiven for getting the impression that the two are at odds with one another. They might even think so themselves. However, both are right, in their own ways.

The journals system is tremendously useful. The validation and certification through critical peer-review, the stability it lends to scientific communication by providing a unique citation for each article – thus making it the version of record, the structure journals give to archiving, they all add great value to orderly scientific discourse and to maintaining the integrity of ‘the minutes’ of science. What Nalley fails to address – though it can be read between the lines – is the matter of cost. Nalley fears that if articles published in the ACS journals are made freely available elsewhere, their economic basis is seriously undermined.

Morrison doesn’t refute this. Instead, she is addressing a different point. It is evident that unhindered access to scientific research literature is beneficial for science, and hence for society. Not a word about cost, though. Who is she expecting to pay for it all?

If researchers want to communicate their research results, it is perfectly possible for them to make it all available to anyone in the world for free. All they have to do is post their material on a on a web site or to deposit it in an OA repository. Why don’t they just do that? Why bother a publisher? Or is the publisher perhaps providing them with something that makes their articles more valuable – to them and to science – than they would be if just published unofficially on the web?

That, of course, is the key. Journals (and thus: publishers) make unofficial, grey literature white, so to speak. Golden, even. They organise, operate and maintain a system that results in the ‘attachment’ of a journal ‘label’ to an article, which all of a sudden turns what is hitherto grey into a fully recognised publication, the version-integrity of which is guaranteed, and which is fully embedded in the official literature. That process adds tremendous value. But it carries costs.

Nalley’s letter is prompted by the NIH policies and Congressional draft bills that move towards requiring open access for federally funded research. The anxiety of the ACS and other publishers is justified as long as the NIH and congressional bills do not address the issue of costs associated with the tremendously useful journals system. They should take a leaf out of the Wellcome Trust book, which does address the issue with exemplary clarity. On their web site one can read that "…the Wellcome Trust […] will provide grantholders with additional funding to cover the costs of page processing charges levied by publishers who support the open access model" (my emphasis). The ACS should ask for that kind of commitment and clarity from the NIH, from other federal funding bodies, and from Congress. When open access is economically supported, Nalley and Morrison may find themselves on common ground after all.

Jan Velterop

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