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What happens when you take something of value and give it away?

What are the consequences when you take something of value and give it away for free? Does it hurt the quality and reliability of the product? Can the product be produced at all? We are about to find out, and in an area that is critically important to U.S. competitiveness and innovation: science.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a plan to require free public access to science journal articles on a broad scale within 12 months of publication.  The DOE plan resulted from a February, 2013 directive on open access to the results of federally funded research from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

{mosads}As the head of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, I have been concerned about the impact of such calls for public access for some time. While popular and politically expedient, it is overly simplistic to demand that government-financed research be made available at no charge within a blanket, arbitrary timeframe.

A significant fraction of the scientific literature is published by nonprofit science, mathematics, and science and mathematics education societies, including those of my members.  Publications often represent an important core activity of those societies.  Public access policies therefore will significantly impact scientific societies, and could seriously damage both science and science education. 

To mount a journal is not free.  Publication costs are significant, including hardware, software, management of the peer review process, editorial work and oversight,  database maintenance, printing, archiving, distribution, and storage. 

Those are vital investments, so the real question is who will pay for them in the future: the authors (through their institution or via the very grants they receive), the users (such as libraries, companies, and individuals), or a third party (namely the government – i.e. taxpayers – or donors).

The Council of Scientific Society Presidents is comprised of those in the Presidency of some 60 scientific, mathematics, and science and mathematics education societies, whose combined membership numbers 1.4 million.  Our top priorities include strong support for science, scientific research, and science education.

Scientific societies strongly support enhanced public access, and we have worked for decades in providing such access.  Our concern with mandatory government public access policies, especially those with broad, one-size-fits-all provisions, is consequences. Societies have been publishing journals for over 100 years, and have stewarded the advancement of science with responsibility. In addition, societies give back to science via essential value-added services, such as meetings (both large and small); career mentoring; courses/seminars; educational resources; honors/awards; and public outreach activities like science cafes, to name only a few.

Unfortunately, if public access policies are not carefully designed around the unique needs of each discipline, some scientific societies may not survive, and with their loss the loss of essential services not just limited to the communication of science.

It should be obvious that not all journals behave the same, have the same pattern of use, or have the same sources of funding.  As one example, research in the health sciences advances very quickly, while journals in fields like mathematics and the humanities have an average usage “half-life” up to two years longer.  

If we pursue evidence-based policymaking, it is clear that a base embargo of 12 months is not adequate for most disciplines.  A base 24 month embargo period is much more realistic to ensure journal viability and society financial health.

One proposed solution is free-to-reader peer-reviewed journals, but then who pays? Immediate open access publishing requires authors (or someone on their behalf) to pay publication fees on the order of $1500 to $3000 per paper.  In disciplines where that has not been the norm, where are researchers to get that money? Unless funding agencies increase the size of grants (which is unlikely), researchers will need to reduce the number of publications and/or cut students. Neither is positive public policy.  

Public access policies need to be based on a transparent, evidence-based process that accounts for the significant variation in research, usage, and funding between disciplines.  Embargos for some disciplines must be longer than 12 months based on discipline data on journal half-lives and other factors.  In addition, a post publication virtual private sector interactive repository is possible with the resources of publishers (CHORUS), and it should receive preference over unnecessary public sector investment.

To protect our vital scientific publishing system, government policies on public access to research articles must minimize the risk of unintended consequences for science and scientists. 

Nelson, Ph.D., is presidents of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.




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