The Open Science Debate: Part 1 (Ding Dong, the RWA is Dead!)

Thanks to nomination by Kelly Z, David Bochner and I will be attending a colloquium on the future of scientific publishing this Thursday, sponsored by Stanford University Libraries, Highwire Press, and the Journal of Clinical Chemistry. In preparation, I have been doing a lot of research into the current debate over the role of traditional publishers, and models for what a future, more open publication system might look like. In the spirit of open discussion, I thought I would share my thoughts here and invite the Stanford community to comment and post your own ideas and responses, which I would love to share with the colloquium this week.

Below is Part 1, in which I discuss the rise and fall of the controversial Research Works Act this winter. I end with a number of links for further reading about the controversy and resources which discuss the new models of scientific publishing which are being aired.

Part 2, which I will post next weekend, will describe the state of the Open Science movement in more detail, and summarize the discussions we have during Thursday’s colloquium.

Part 1 – Ding Dong, the RWA is Dead!

One doesn’t frequently have the opportunity to envision a mob of angry scientists, chanting slogans, lab coats a-flapping, brandishing acetylene torches and tuning forks, marching to storm the fortress of the status quo. However, this is precisely the image that has been conjured up in recent weeks (1) to describe the furious stream of blog posts, op-eds, and twitter streams emanating from the corner offices of labs across the country, denouncing prestigious journals and publishers as ‘enemies of science’ (2).

The proximal cause of the all this agitation in the academy is a bill called the Research Works Act (3), introduced to the US Congress by Reps. Darrel Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in December. In essence, the RWA proposes to roll back the NIH’s 2008 Public Access Policy, which mandates that the results of all NIH-funded research must be made available for free on the web within one year of publication (4). That is, NIH made the argument that since taxpayers were funding the research, they should not have to pay again to see the results.

The academic publishing industry strongly disagreed. Two of the main backers of the Research Works Act were international publishing giant Elsevier (which has made significant donations to both the bill’s sponsors (5)) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) (6), who asserted that the NIH’s current policy amounts to government sponsored piracy, and violates the copyrights held by scientific journals and publishers.

This is where the angry mob comes in. Sparked by a furious New York Times op-ed (7) by Michael Eisen, UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist and co-founder of the open access journal Public Library of Science (PLoS), outrage spread online, leaping from blog to blog and engulfing twitter in a haze of horrified hashtags (#openaccess!). [See bottom of this post for some of my favorites...] Scores expressed their disapproval of RWA, including researchers, librarians, and many AAP members, including prestigious university presses, Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (8). Nearly 8000 researchers have pledged to boycott Elsevier journals as a result of their support for RWA as well as a long history of controversial business practices (9).

In early February, a group of lawmakers countered the RWA with their own legislation, the Federal Research Public Access Act (10), which would require all federal agencies that provide funding for research to develop their own public access policies, and reduced the delay between publication and open archiving to 6 months.

Finally, as of last week, the Research Works Act could be pronounced officially ‘dead in committee’ (11). After Elsevier withdrew its support of the bill (though not of its aims) (12) on Monday, Reps Issa & Maloney declared that they would abandon further legislative action. Citing their satisfaction with the “robust, expansive debate” it had provoked, the two sponsors acknowledged that “[open access publishing] appears to be the wave of the future. The transition must be collaborative, and must respect copyright law and the principles of open access [but] the American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid.” (13).

While less dramatic than the January 18 blackout by Google, Wikipedia, Reddit and other influential sites, which dealt a political drubbing to the SOPA and PIPA bills, the wired reaction to RWA seems to have been equally effective in halting this regressive action by the publishers. The powerful reaction against the RWA reflects a strong undercurrent of frustration with academic journals among the scientists who publish in them.

There are a few components to this frustration, but a common thread is a concern held by many scientists that publishers wield inordinate power over academia. At the most basic level, the relationship between researchers and publishers is always emotionally fraught because journal editors are essentially the gatekeepers of scientific careers. Even the most brilliant and fortunate have had research papers rejected (14), and it is easier to blame publishers’ or peer-reviewers’ flaws than one’s own. Most would suppress such feelings as petty, but I suspect that they provide a backdrop for other economic or political complaints against the journals.

One of the most heatedly voiced grievances is accusation by researchers and research librarians that publishers engage in unfair, monopolistic pricing practices. Publishers control the flow of crucial scientific information, and so research libraries must buy their products, which sometimes leads the publishers to try to force more money out of them. In 2010, the University of California successfully boycotted NPG over a 400% price hike and other financial skulduggery (15). The international megapublisher Elsevier in particular is accused of price gouging and “bundling” – ie requiring libraries to purchase journals in large tranches for high prices, even if the library only really needs a few of the titles in the bundle. The frustration with these practices is compounded by the fact that many publishers make very high profits (Elsevier is estimated to take around 30% of its income as profit) (16, 17).

Thus, publishers’ support for regressive policies such as the Research Works Act is simply the final straw in awakening scientists’ outrage. In addition to pure curiosity, one of the pervading motivations for embarking on a scientific career of long hours and low pay is idealism, the desire to make an important contribution to knowledge that will advance the state of humankind. Scientists are generally completely horrified at the idea that our work might be taken advantage of for profit (especially since it isn’t our own profit). Thus, on top of the common frustrations of trying to get one’s work into the journals, long-standing distrust of publishers’ business ethics, this latest attempt by to secure permanent profits on the fruits of scientists’ labors by walling them off from public view was bound to make researchers reach for the torches and pitchforks.

This outrage has been a boon to the Open Access Science movement (eg. 18), advocates of which have long argued that it is time to overthrow the outdated “dead-tree based” scientific publishing model science uses for a much more egalitarian model which makes use on the crowd-sourcing potential of the web to cut out the journals’ gate-keeping function entirely.  The question is, exactly what model ought to replace the current system, and how can we make sure that change does not damage science more than it improves it?