How will the open access movement affect global science?

Illustration credit: Brian E. Smith

When Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 this spring, many scientists had a warm fuzzy feeling: The bill would require any published paper drawing on research funded by a major US government agency to be put online within six months, enabling anyone with Internet access to obtain the latest scientific research.

But science publishers are not feeling the love. The bill is part of a global open
access movement that is forcing the scientific community to re-address how it publishes research. In 2005, Research Councils UK recommended that all public funded studies be made available; this year, the European Commission advised EU countries to adopt an open-access policy. But, despite its noble aspirations, Cornyn-Lieberman could throw a monkey wrench into the works of scientific publishing. “Government agencies are going to become publishers competing against the [original] publishers,” said Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society (APS), which publishes 14 journals.

The bill would cover a huge percentage of research material—the NIH, just one of 11 agencies affected, funds over 70,000 papers per year—and if reasonably up-to-date findings are available to all online, who needs Physical Review Letters? Major titles would be less damaged by the proposed legislation because they publish more frequently and are therefore more current. “However,” said a spokesman for Nature Publishing Group, “we recognize that other publishers will be severely affected.”
The most-threatened publications typically serve a niche community of researchers and function as anthologies for highly specialized fields. Without revenue from their pricey subscriptions—Brain Research costs $23,617 a year—there’s not much left. “You have to wonder if librarians, whose budgets are being constantly constrained, are going to make a judgment like, ‘Well…my faculty users can wait six months until this is free,’” said Kenneth R. Fulton, publisher of PNAS.

With US journals moving toward open access, publishers in the UK, Australia and elsewhere are beginning to pay close attention.

Cornyn-Lieberman joined an open access movement that has exploded in recent years, thanks largely to the NIH: In the late 90s, then-director Harold Varmus laid the groundwork for PubMed Central, an online archive of biology-related research. In 2000, the Nobel Prize-winner co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a non-profit that publishes the increasingly well-regarded open access journals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine. That same year, APS decided to offer free access to articles older than a year “because we thought it was the right thing to do,” said Martin Frank. And titles like Nature, Science, PNAS, JAMA and The New England Journal of Medicine are granting free access to older articles and/or allowing authors, after a lag time, to link to articles from their personal web pages. In 2005, the NIH instituted its public access policy, which asks NIH-funded investigators to submit peer-reviewed manuscripts to PubMed Central within 12 months of journal publication. With US journals leading the trend on open access, publishers in other countries are paying close attention. Indeed, the UK’s Wellcome Trust last year began requiring its investig-ators to provide peer-reviewed articles within six months of publication, and an effort urging the Australian Research Council to adopt a similar system is also underway. Cornyn-Lieberman is sure to increase pressure on them. “The US is often perceived as a leader, which will encourage foreign granting agencies to consider following suit,” said Frank. PNAS now allows authors to make articles available online for a fee of $1,000. About 19% of PNAS authors have elected to do so, and according to a recent study, these papers are over twice as likely to be cited—the ranking standard for journals—as articles in subscriber-model journals. A 2005 international survey of researchers found that 29% had published in open access journals, up 18% from 2004. “Authors appear to be being influenced by the accumulating evidence that open access leads to greater usage and citation of their articles,” said Mark Patterson, director of publishing for PLoS. In fact, in 2004’s “Journal Citation Report,” Thomson Scientific found the young PLoS Biology had a higher impact factor than the respected Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, the pricey Brain Research and the venerable PNAS. As scientists turn to venues that offer developing countries, hobbyists and established scientists alike the best research—and that boast higher citation rates—the traditional publishing model will need some adjustments. Whether Cornyn-Lieberman passes or not, the tide is turning.

Originally published September 28, 2006

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