• January 26, 2015

Law Would Balance Public Access and Publishers' Sustenance

To the Editor:

In "An Open Letter to Academic Publishers About Open Access" (The Chronicle, April 1), Jennifer Howard called for publishers not to "underestimate the powerful draw" of the idea of removing cost barriers and broadening access to scholarly publications. She declared that "publishers can't afford to dismiss" this moment merely "as a temporary PR problem." And she asked, "Publishers, how will you adapt?"

In my view, Ms. Howard may be correct that scientific publishers lack public relations skill, but off the mark in asserting that journal publishers have not been adapting to changing technical and business environments. Far from underestimating or dismissing what's evolving, publishers are not just adapting, but engaging on all journal-access fronts. After all, widely available content is in the interests of both author and publisher. Much of the discordant debate, particularly for articles based on publicly funded research, comes down to "Who pays for what?"

Ms. Howard focused on two recent legislative proposals concerning public access. But she scanted the existing law that both reflects and spurs the engagement process that's under way: the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010. The act contains an effective framework to broaden public access. It envisions a balance between public access and sustenance of scientific publishing's indispensable dimensions, both old and new. The law derives from the work of the multistakeholder Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, which developed recommendations under the aegis of the House Science and Technology Committee in 2009-10. It takes a flexible, broad view, recognizing that it's essential for scientific publishers to experiment with different publication, business, and access models.

The Competes Act called for the National Science and Technology Council to "solicit input and recommendations from, and collaborate with, non-federal stakeholders"—that is, the public, universities, libraries, commercial publishers, and nonprofit scientific-publishing organizations. In March, the NSTC issued the report "Interagency Public Access Coordination." Only one federal agency, the National Institutes of Health, has a legislatively established public-access policy. The Competes Act requires other federal research-funding agencies, like the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, to include all stakeholders in developing policy. More important, it recognizes a key finding from the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable: that access is inextricably linked to interoperability among databases and archiving of digital content. Further, there is a strong connection to all of the downstream products from publicly funded research—from the original grantee reports to the underlying data to peer-reviewed publications. Unfortunately, the debate on public access has focused only on publications—largely because of institutional librarians' very real budgetary problems.

A review of Competes-era evidence shows real progress. An ad-hoc group of scientific, technical, and medical publishers has been working with the science foundation and Energy Department over the past year to devise pilot projects that improve access and link content across agency and publisher platforms, and to start tackling the large problems of standardizing how we should archive, identify, and retrieve both large and small data sets. Most scientific, technical, and medical publishers (and their two major trade associations) embrace open access as one viable dissemination model. They just don't want government-mandated dissemination or business models.

In the 1990s, the industry began embracing the Web for dissemination. The technology constantly changes the definition of a publication; open access now means more than just access to a pdf copy of an article. An article is no longer a chunk of text fixed in time; instead, it can be a fluid representation linking to updates, supplemental material, multimedia files, and software. It can be revised, corrected and updated over time. Hence the emergence of new initiatives such as CrossRef's CrossMark service, which electronically watermarks an article's version of record, and DataCite, which extends the CrossRef-promoted Digital Object Identifier to data sets. As print versions rapidly disappear from journal publishing, so does the static aggregation model for librarians in this distributed, dynamic Web era. But someone—author, librarian, reader, government, or some combination—has to pay the very real first copy costs.

Maria Leptin, director of the European Molecular Biology Organization, wrote in a March 16 editorial in the journal Science: "Any transition to open access on a large scale will require a clear understanding of the financial challenges that will be faced. Put simply, publishing costs money, and open access does not mean 'for free'—someone must foot the bill."

H. Frederick Dylla
Executive Director and CEO
American Institute of Physics
One Physics Ellipse
College Park, Md.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
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