Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Interview with Pat Brown

Lisa Junker, Into the Great Wide Open, Associations Now, August 2007.

...Patrick Brown, PhD, is one of the cofounders of the Public Library of Science, a leading voice on behalf of open access, in addition to his day job as a professor of biochemistry and biomedical researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford University School of Medicine. Brown recently discussed his strongly held views on open access, its benefits, and its future with Associations Now.

Associations Now: For our readers who may not be totally familiar with open access and the Public Library of Science, could you lay out the basics of what open access is?

Brown: The mechanisms are in place to allow ready access to anything on the internet, and, if the content is digital, allow it to be the substrate for all sorts of computational tools that add value to it. Now that those possibilities exist, the traditional business model is completely obsolete.

That model doesn't serve the purpose of scientific publication, which is to allow discoveries to be made, and made available for the benefit of the people who are supporting the research. If there's no economic reason and no technological reason why those results can't be made freely available for whatever useful purpose, then it's crazy not to be making every effort to make that transition. And the reason that it's not being made is because there's a vested financial interest in preserving the business model.

The definition of open access: Published information is made freely available through public repositories where there is no control by the publisher of who does what with the information, and with a license for use that only imposes a requirement that the original authors, creators, be properly acknowledged. Other than that, you can do whatever you want with it. I can put it in a database. I can republish it. I can post it on my own website. I can develop computer software for extracting information from published papers and presenting it in new formats or linking it to other kinds of data. You name it. It's information that should be viewed as a resource from which to create even more valuable, useful things—as opposed to private property that produces, by restricting access to it, revenue for publishers.

I understand that a lot of completely well meaning associations and groups are very nervous about the potential financial consequences of changing a business model that is still working for them—even if the purpose is inarguably a good one for the public benefit. There's anxiety about this. But I think there's absolutely no fundamental reason why that transition can't be made.

What are the primary audiences that you see being affected by open access?

...Any extent to which you can improve the access of the scientific-research community to that body of knowledge, you have improved their productivity and improved their ability to do their work. Simply being able to peek at papers one paper at a time, or to see only the older literature, falls short of that.

Think about the history of DNA sequence information. There was a decision made, almost casually, 30 years ago, that journals would require published DNA sequences to be put into a public repository—basically, because they got sick of printing page after page of DNA sequences. So it became the standard that all this stuff is in a public repository.

Well, that was an unbelievably fortuitous thing. All that sequence information is really available for people to analyze any way they want. There's a whole scientific field of people who are developing computational tools for finding and organizing information, comparing information and DNA sequences, et cetera. Without that, there would be no genome project—all the progress and breakthroughs that have come in genomics and molecular biology and genetics as a result of having this ability to compare sequences and analyze sequences and stuff like that....

With all these benefits, why would an author not choose to go with an open-access journal?

...[Funding agencies should] just say, "Look, you don't have to take our money, but if you do, our rule is that when you have results that are worth publishing, you have to make them available to everyone, without restricted use. You don't like that, no one's forcing you to do it, just don't take our money." Of course, people would scream and fuss, but I doubt many of them would say, "OK, then we won't take your money."

Another thing that the funding agencies need to do is to take the financial burden of that decision away from the authors and say, "We will cover the cost of publication in any legitimate, peer-reviewed, scientific journal out of funds that are separate from your research budget." ...[Scientists] should not have to bear the burden of doing something that's good for the scientific community on their own shoulders.

Do you envision a tipping point when the market will shift and there will be much more open access and much less traditional publishing? How do you see that happening?

...[I]t's analogous to when journals went online. The tipping point was reached when there was enough material online that, even if the exact paper that you would have preferred to read wasn't in an online journal, you could find enough of the stuff you wanted that it wasn't worth the hassle to go to the library. As soon as that happens, anyone who's not online is headed for the dustbin.

If you have a critical mass of information that is open access, it's a hell of a lot easier to just go to one repository to get it, and if that repository—because the stuff is really open access—is providing all sorts of tools and links for finding information and integrating it with other things and so forth, you're going to go there first. There'll be more and more explaining to do for the publishers to justify not participating in this process once people realize how much benefit they gain from it.

Once there's enough stuff in the open-access space, the non-open-access stuff is going to be marginalized....

What can you tell association publishers to show them that this transition can be sustainable?

There's a bunch of issues there. Number one, a lot of societies that make that claim —I would encourage people to look at their Form 990s. I get great enjoyment out of reading the Form 990s of scientific societies that talk about how important it is to preserve the income from their journals to do all these wonderful things they do, when, very often, the wonderful things they do, taken in aggregate, don't add up to the cost of their chief executive officer.

But let's just take that at face value—that their only motivation is to do good for the world and for science and for their community. One of the questions is, how important are those things that you're trying to fund with profits in your journal, compared to the good that you do for your mission through publishing itself and making access as freely available as possible?

Then there's the issue: Is there a financially sustainable open-access business model? Even if we didn't have a working model for it, I think you'd have to make the argument [that there is]. You're just talking about having to recover the cost of publishing through a different route. If we, or the scientific community, aren't smart enough to be able to do something that we all agree is good, that basically transfers money from the same pockets to pay the cost of publication through a different route, then we're not nearly as smart as we give ourselves credit for....