Academics are partly to blame for supporting the closed and expensive access system of publishing

Michael Eisen recently published a New York Times op-ed arguing that a bill meant to protect publishers, introduced in the House of Representatives, will result in tax payers paying twice for scientific research. According to Eisen

If the bill passes, to read the results of federally funded research, most Americans would have to buy access to individual articles at a cost of $15 or $30 apiece. In other words, taxpayers who already paid for the research would have to pay again to read the results.

We agree and encourage our readers to write Congress opposing the “Research Works Act”. However, whereas many are vilifying the publishers that are lobbying for this act,  I think us academics are the main culprits keeping open access from succeeding.

If this bill makes it into law, I do not think that the main issue will be US taxpayers paying twice for research, but rather that access will be even more restricted to the general scientific community. Interested parties outside the US -and in developing countries in particular- should have unrestriced access to scientific knowledge. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney gets it wrong by not realizing that giving China (and other countries) access to scientific knowledge is beneficial to science in general and consequently to everyone.  However, to maintain the high quality of research publications we currently enjoy, someone needs to pay for competent editors, copy editors, support staff, and computer servers.  Open access journals shift the costs from the readers to authors that have plenty of funds (grants, startups, etc..) to cover the charges.  By charging the authors, papers can be made available online for free. Free to everyone. Open access. PLoS has demonstrated that the open access model is viable, but a paper in PLoS Biology will run you $2,900 (see Jeff’s table). Several non-profit societies and for profit publishers, such as Nature Publishing Group, offer open access for about the same price

So given all the open access options, why do gated journals survive? I think the main reason is that we -the scientific communitythrough appointments and promotions committees, study sections, award committees, etc. use journal prestige to evaluate publication records disregarding open access as a criteria (see Eisen’s related post on decoupling publication and assessment). Therefore, those that decide to only publish in open access journals, may hinder not only their careers, but also the careers of their students and postdocs. The other reason is that for authors, publishing gated papers is typically cheaper than open access papers, and we don’t always make the more honorable decision. 

Another important consideration is that a substantial proportion of publication costs comes from printing paper copies. My department continues to buy print copies of several stat journals as well as some of the general science magazines. The Hopkins library, on behalf of the faculty, buys print versions of hundreds of journals. As long as we continue to create a market for paper copies, the journals will continue to allocate resources to producing them. Somebody has to pay for this, yet with online versions already being produced the print versions are superfluous.

Apart from opposing the Research Works Act as Eisen proposes, there are two more things I intend to do in 2012: 1) lobby my department to stop buying print versions and 2) lobby my study section to give special consideration to open access publications when evaluating a biosketch or a progress report.