Tuesday, May 16, 2006

On the Bill

The Cornyn-Lieberman Bill, a.k.a. the Federal Research Public Access Act or FRPAA, has evoked some strong reactions. Many - perhaps most - publishers are dismayed; many - perhaps most - open access advocated are delighted.

Yet I'm afraid I see the FRPAA as a bit of a dogs dinner. Fish nor fowl. The six months' embargo is a perilously short period of time for most publishers to recoup their costs via subscriptions. And it is useless as a stimulus to the development of sustainable open access publishing.

Of course, I know of assertions that a six months' embargo poses no threat to subscriptions; even that immediate open self-archiving is safe. The example ('evidence') invariably given is that of physics and the effect ArXiv has had on subscription [at least so far]. Evidence? Perhaps. But without a mechanism, or even hypothesis, that might possibly be seen as explaining the phenomenon. Not even like evidence that extremely diluted potions still seem to provide a cure for some diseases in some people. For that we have at least a hypothesis: placebo-effect. Even if publishers do not entirely reject the evidence, they simply cannot afford to bank on its broad and sustained validity. Hence, publishers' anxiety.

The only reason why there possibly is a six months' embargo in the Bill is a realisation that publishers need to be able to recoup the money they put into publishing. Given that Messrs. Cornyn and Lieberman realise this, it would have been better to require immediate open access and to acknowledge that publishing is part of doing research, and therefore the cost of publishing part of the cost of research, thereby stimulating publishers to seriously develop open access publishing models based on article processing charges.

Of course, I know of assertions that not all OA journals charge authors anything at all. This is undoubtedly so, but a quick look at those journals leaves one with the inescapable impression that ideas about scaling up that mode of operation to anywhere near the bulk of the serious journal literature firmly belong in the realm of unlimited impossibilities.

The whole world of scientific and scholarly research benefits from having robust and reliably sustainable open access publishing structures. Politicians do, too, because society as a whole does, too. And yes, publishers do, too.

Jan Velterop

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