Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, September 12, 2008

More on the arguments to overturn the NIH policy

Jocelyn Kaiser, Congressional Committee Moves to Block NIH Public Access Policy, Science Magazine, September 11, 2008.  Excerpt:

...NIH says compliance [with the new, mandatory version of the policy] has risen [from less than 10%] to 56%, or about 3300 papers submitted each month, since the rule took effect in April. (The agency could potentially suspend the grant of an investigator who ignores the policy but is so far relying on less punitive measures, such as reminders). Meanwhile, some commercial and society publishers, such as the American Physiological Society (APS), have complained that the policy infringes on their copyrights and will put them out of business by cutting into their subscription base....

Representative John Conyers (DMI)...questioned the need for the policy when the public can already obtain the papers through a subscription or at a library. Moreover, most journals make their content free after 12 months.

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni defended the policy. He argued that PubMed Central is enhancing the papers by linking to molecular databases and other papers. "The real value is the connectivity," Zerhouni said. He also claimed that "there is no evidence that this has been harmful" to publishers. In response, APS Executive Director Martin Frank, whose society publishes 14 journals, disagrees, telling Science that some journal editors believe the new policy is leading to "fewer eyeballs coming to their sites." ...

There is no companion bill in the Senate, and Congress is not expected to act on the [Conyers bill] before it adjourns later this month. Jonathan Band, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the American Library Association, which favors open access, says the bill's sweeping provisions are a fatal flaw. "It goes far beyond the NIH policy. It limits a lot of what the federal government can do," he says....


  • "Representative John Conyers (DMI)...questioned the need for the policy when the public can already obtain the papers through a subscription or at a library."  Rep. Conyers doesn't understand the problem.  Public libraries seldom subscribe to peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journals, and university libraries have to cancel titles by the hundreds every year because prices are increasing significantly faster than library budgets.  This is a "let them eat cake" response.
  • "[M]ost journals make their content free after 12 months."  It's odd that publishers would this as an argument against the NIH policy.  If it's true, then publishers have to stop arguing that OA to NIH-funded research would kill their revenues, kill their journals, and kill peer review.  If it's not true, or if the NIH policy goes significantly further than publishers would voluntarily go on their own, then they have drop the "wasteful duplication" argument.  They can't have it both ways.
  • As soon Congress first called for the NIH policy in 2004, we started hearing opposition from publishers who already, voluntarily provided gratis OA to their articles on the same 12 month timetable allowed by the proposed policy.  They weren't the majority or even close (and still may not be today).  But I wrote an article about them and made this point:
    [T]heir objection does not seem to be to OA as such.  The objection is that the NIH plan will provide OA on the NIH's terms, not on the publishers' terms.  The problem is control....Who should decide which access barriers to remove, when, and on what terms? ...Publishers who object to this loss of control are defending the remarkable proposition that they should control access to research conducted by others, written up by others, and funded by taxpayers.  More:  they claim that they should control access to this literature even when it is given to them free of charge and even though the prices they demand for it have risen four times faster than inflation for nearly two decades....When we start to replace this inherited system with a more rational one, the former gatekeepers protest, but I have yet seen them offer a principled objection....Their objections...have been naked assertions of economic self-interest at the expense of the public interest.
  • In response to Elias Zerhouni's claim that "there is no evidence that [the NIH policy] has been harmful" to publishers, "Martin Frank...[told] Science that some journal editors believe the new policy is leading to 'fewer eyeballs coming to their sites.'" ...That's the harm?  It's well-known and not surprising that OA archiving can reduce downloads from publisher web sites.  But there's no evidence that these reduced downloads are reflected in reduced subscriptions. If there were, then publishers would cite the reduced subscriptions instead of the reduced downloads, to strengthen their case that the policy causes harm.  Moreover, the downloaded manuscripts contain citations and links to the published editions (the NIH sees to it), helping to spread the journal's brand, increase its audience, and increase the citations to its papers.  But even if the downloads didn't cite and link to the published originals, should our representatives in Congress deny the public interest in public access to publicly-funded research in order to steer more eyeballs to publisher web sites?  (For more on the reduced downloads phenomenon, see Section 8 of this article from September 2007.)