Sunday, January 06, 2008

Taking the trip without paying the ship?

‘Twas the time of peace on Earth, making merry for some, serious contemplation for others, and infantilisation for others still, if I read the blog and list postings of the last few weeks. And combinations of all of the above, of course. Many of those who favour Open Access have reason to be happy, since the NIH mandate has passed all its hurdles in the US legislature and is becoming law. Albeit, oh irony, as stowaway in a spending bill that allocates nigh unlimited funds to war, a small fraction of which would have made the entire academic literature published since the dawn of modern science open to anyone in the whole world. A bag of sweets hidden in a barge of poison. It is a shame the mandate couldn’t make it on its own.

What is it all about?

The mandate in the bill requires researchers, authors, to deposit the articles resulting from their NIH-funded research immediately in PubMed Central and then make them open after 12 months at the latest. Read thus, the whole thing is ostensibly taking place outside the purview of publishers, as it is not they who are mandated to do anything. There’s even a positive message for many of them, if they are willing to hear it. Open access is, after all, a desirable thing, politically and scientifically. And it is not just any articles resulting from their research that grantees are mandated to deposit and make open within 12 months, it is their published, peer-reviewed articles. So what publishers have to do is make sure they offer authors open access – or at least embargoed open access – to the articles for which they, the publishers, arrange peer-review and then formal publication in a journal.

How they do that is the question. Most journals get ‘paid’ for their efforts by the authors’ transfer of copyright. This copyright they then subsequently ‘trans-substantiate’ into money via subscriptions. What an embargo does is simply to make this ‘payment’ of copyright worth less. For some journals, an embargo of 12 months will make little difference. The time-sensitive currency of the information published in those titles demands that libraries need to subscribe to get immediate access anyway. For those, the ‘value’ of copyright is not eroded. But for other journals, the ones that publish less time-sensitive material, a mandate is possibly devastating, a double whammy, removing the incentive to pay both on the part of the librarian, who judges that his or her constituency can wait 12 months for access, as well as on the part of the author, who, given the option, may judge that his or her readers can wait 12 months for access. Subscription journals and mandated open access are not compatible. Only journals run on entirely charitable support can survive this way.

Fully open access journals stand somewhat outside the pitch as observers of the spectacle, since they have already understood that being dependent on what governments may allow you as a term in which to sell subscriptions is just too risky. They don't give authors a choice and simply refuse to publish articles unless they are paid for by article processing charges, a.k.a. author-side publication fees. Subscription-based journals and hybrid journals (those that offer paid-for open access as an option) are the ones likely to suffer, although hybrid journals have the possibility too, of course, to remove the non-OA option for NIH-funded research articles and behave exactly like a full OA journal towards NIH-grantees.

Surely, the stowaway analogy doesn’t go further than the mandate simply being buried in the bowels of the bill, does it? Surely, the free-readership mandate doesn’t imply free-ridership, too, does it? Surely, the mandate doesn’t imply that NIH-funded researchers are compelled to take the trip without paying for the ticket? If so, the bill is fundamentally a dishonest one. If it isn’t a dishonest one, surely the NIH will clearly indicate that it is entirely legitimate, and advisable, for authors to spend a small percentage of their grant money – estimates range from 1 to 2 percent – on the article processing fees for publication with immediate open access?

If the bill really should be the fundamentally dishonest variety feared, one of ‘taking the trip without paying the ship’, then this OA ‘victory’ will, alas, turn out to be a Pyrrhic one. A short-term pseudo-success at the cost of a long-term open access solution. A palliative that ultimately kills instead of a treatment that ultimately cures.

Advocates of true, immediate, and sustainable open access, as an integral part of research, may still have a long way to go.

Happy 2008!

Jan Velterop

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