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Saturday, June 14, 2008

STM comments on the SFI draft OA policy

STM has released its comment on the draft OA policy from the Science Foundation Ireland.  Excerpt:

...This policy makes reference to other statements as examples of "best practice". These other statements omit any evidential basis for their embargo periods and in most cases are copying from earlier statements, also without an evidential basis. Nowhere has there been any impact assessment of the likely effects of six, nine or even twelve month embargo periods on the viability of journals. We refer SFI to the eContentPlusfunded PEER project, due to commence in Europe in September 2008, which will be the first attempt to find out what the effects may be. We believe undue commitment to any embargo period (but especially less than twelve months) is premature until the results of this study become known....

We feel the present language risks entangling SFI in violations of Ireland?s international treaty obligations under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property ("TRIPS").

For our member publishers, making access to research articles free at any point after ? or even upon ? publication presupposes a means of recovering revenues that allow the journal to exist. To make articles free to read immediately upon publication means that funds equal to 100% of the "pay to read" revenues have to be found from another source: be it government subsidy, charitable donations or publication charges. Of these three options, only one is potentially sustainable and scalable for the estimated 25,000 active learned journals published worldwide and involves publication charges (equal to potential lost revenues) paid either directly by the author or indirectly by the funder of the piece of research. This model has been adopted by a number of funding agencies, especially the Wellcome Trust in the UK, who are prepared to pay a fee for immediate free access. SFI policy does not propose to do this....

An alternative route to open access involves making the article freely available online following publication after some embargo period, typically six, twelve or more months in duration. This approach assumes that an article has little value after its embargo period. For the vast majority of journals this is a dangerous and fallacious assumption. Data from the DC Principles Group of Publishers shows that only about 1% of active learned journals have business models that allow this approach: even in this small group of titles very few indeed, 0.1% (30 journals) make content available by the embargo period in SFI?s draft policy.

Data on the proportion of downloads (or uses) that occur on a wide variety of journals show that 100% is not reached even ten years after publication for any subject....It is clear that one size does not fit all disciplines and that even within the area of health there is considerable variation from 37% at six months to 48% at twelve. With up to 63% of downloads still to occur, a six month embargo would seriously undermine the economic viability of these journals. These arguments have been accepted by the US National Institutes of Health who decided to retain a twelve month embargo period despite strong pressure to reduce it.

Many commentators have argued that all these arguments are invalidated if the deposited item is the peer-reviewed author manuscript version. They base this assessment upon the assumption that to date no journals have been cancelled because such author manuscript versions were made freely available on the internet. Leaving aside the potential human harm that might result (through injudicious use of non-final, non-copy-edited drafts of medical papers with potentially fatal errors in drug dosages and the like), there is now evidence that for many libraries availability of the peer-reviewed author manuscript is good enough, will lead to cancellations, and that a 6-month embargo will have very little impact on such cancellations. Evidence from many publishers is showing that public availability of peer-reviewed author manuscripts on the physics server ArXiv is causing a major migration of downloads away from the journal to the free version. At some point the cost per download of the journals involved will become so high that librarians will be forced to cancel....


  • There are "best practices" to make research useful and "best practices" to preserve publisher revenues.  SFI might have meant the former, since it's a public funding agency dedicated to the public interest.   But STM clearly means the latter. 
  • STM wants SFI to wait for the results of the PEER study of the effects of green OA on publishers.  But STM doesn't mention that this publicly-funded study will be carried out by STM itself.  Nor does it mention that PEER will be smaller, slower, and less neutral than several large ongoing natural experiments on the same question.  Policy-makers don't have to wait for PEER to learn the effects of green OA on journal subscriptions.  For more, see my longer comments on the PEER study from March 2008.
  • The reference to the Berne Convention and TRIPS are pure FUD.  If there's an argument here beyond the hand-waving, it rests on the false assumption that the SFI policy would amend Irish copyright law.  The SFI policy, like other funder OA policies around the world, would only modify the contract between grantor and grantee and leave copyright law unmodified. 
  • I actually agree that funding agencies, at least when they can afford to do so, should allow grantees use grant funds, or to apply for supplementary funds, to pay publication fees at fee-based OA journals.  However, I don't accept the STM argument that funding agencies must not adopt policies that would reduce current revenues for publishers, even when the policies would increase benefits for the public or increase the funder's own return on investment.  To make the STM recommendation a principle would mean that private industry would always trump public policy.
  • The six-month embargo does not assume that articles older than six months have no value and no downloads.  It merely assumes that the interests of publishers in long embargoes must be weighed against the public interest in no embargoes.  That is, it merely assumes that publishers are not the only stakeholders here and must accept a compromise.  Publishers who reject this view are saying that they deserve to be given permanent control of access to research which they didn't conduct, write up, sponsor, or purchase, and which was funded by taxpayers.
  • STM seems to be saying that funders should use the same embargo periods that journals voluntarily adopt for themselves.  But that presupposes that journals are trying to minimize their embargo periods, which is untrue.  Or it presupposes that funders have the same interests as publishers, or should put aside their own interests in order to indulge the interests of publishers, which is lunatic. 
  • STM cites the 12-month embargo at the NIH policy as a model.  But STM fails to mention that every other funder of medical research in the world with an OA policy uses a six-month embargo: the Arthritis Research Campaign (UK), British Heart Foundation, Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, European Research Council, Cancer Research UK, Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Executive Health Department, Department of Health (UK), Fund to Promote Scientific Research (Austria), Genome Canada, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Joint Information Systems Committee (UK), and the Wellcome Trust (UK). These agencies recognize that delaying public access to publicly-funded research is a compromise with the public interest, and that delays are more harmful in medicine than in any other field. 
  • STM can't cite any journal cancellations attributable to the rise of green OA, and shifts the question to reduced downloads.  The download decline is real and understandable.  But it doesn't support the slippery-slope argument for increased cancellations.  More importantly, conjectural cancellations don't outweigh the public interest, and demonstrable cancellations would merely force everyone to acknowledge that existing publishers and existing business models are not the only ways to support peer review.  For more on this cluster of issues (cancellations, downloads, and the prospects for peer review even under mass cancellations of TA journals), see my article from September 2007.
  • For background, see my own comments on the draft SFI policy, which I consider exemplary.  And don't forget that comments on the draft policy are due by June 19 (next Thursday), and can be submitted by email.

Update.  Also see Heather Morrison's comments on the STM statement.  Excerpt:

...[T]here is a serious factual misstatement in the STM response (a claim that only 30 journals make articles freely available after an embargo period; the evidence suggests that the actual number is hundreds or thousands of journals)....

There are more than 3,400 fully open access journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals. DOAJ is a vetted list which includes only fully open access, peer reviewed journals. The Electronic Journals Library is a more inclusive list, including journals with free back issues; Electronic Journals Library lists over 18,000 free journals. Highwire Press lists 42 completely free sites, and 249 sites with free back issues. Over 400 journals make their articles freely available in PubMedCentral; as of March 2008, 321 made these articles freely available immediately on publication. For the analysis, see this post on IJPE.

In sum, while I don't have the exact figures for how many journals make back issues freely available, clearly the numbers are in the hundreds (Highwire, PubMedCentral), or thousands (Electronic Journals Library) - not just 30!