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News from the open access movement

Saturday, July 26, 2008

More on removing price and permission barriers

Jocalyn Clark, Is the NIH open access policy regressive? PLoS blog, July 25, 2008.  Notes from the ISMB 2008 meeting (Toronto, July 19-23, 2008).  Excerpt:

Mark Gerstein from Yale University gave an outstanding talk in a session called The Future of Scientific Publication....He emphasised the use of text mining to study the “structure of science.” ...Whereas conventional challenges have us struggling to keep up with the volume and growth of scientific technologies to structure and text mine scientific publications can help scientists share information and foster collaboration....

But none of this is possible without open access, countered Matt Cockerill from BioMed Central. He said that we absolutely need the raw material (whether it be biological data or bibliometric information) freely and openly available to apply the network algorithms so we can visualise the structure of science. Currently, much information is behind access controls thus disrupting the whole vision of an interconnected and collaborative scientific world.

The second issue of note was raised during the session’s Publishers’ Panel, populated by Catherine Nancarrow (PLoS), Claire Bird (Oxford University Press), and Matt Cockerill (BioMed Central). Panellists noted that the recent NIH public access policy emphasises free not open access. That is, the policy may lead to freely accessible publications (for which publishers or organisations may reap profits from charging authors a fee to deposit their manuscripts), but these will remain under restrictive licenses (thus limiting text-mining).

This, Cockerill argued, makes the NIH policy regressive.

Before blogging this post, I asked Matt Cockerill for his own recollection of what he said.  He gave me permission to quote his reply (Thanks, Matt):

I  don't recall using the word "regressive", though it's not impossible, but obviously context is everything and a single word excerpt doesn't provide it.

I remember making the point that in theory the NIH policy is an important step along the road to full open access, but that there was a danger that the partial form of OA ( embargoes, non final version, no reuse or downloading of bulk XML) could actually end up being an obstacle, used by publishers as essentially a kind of firebreak, to fend of the threat of fuller OA. I didn't use the term firebreak, but that's the idea I was getting at. Certainly at the ISMB meeting, many researchers I spoke to raised this issue as a real concern, as I know it is at NIH too. Which is why I raised it during the panel on the last day of the show....

Comments.  I'm glad Matt was able to clarify.  I agree with his point, but couldn't have agreed that the NIH policy was literally regressive.  Like many of our other success stories, the NIH policy a big step forward even if it stops short of BBB OA.  The NIH policy provides free online access (gratis OA) to an estimated 80,000 peer-reviewed articles per year.  That's unambiguous progress, and it's hard-won.  But the policy removes price barriers without removing permission barriers.  All other funder and university policies in the world do the same thing.  The NIH policy also permits embargoes of up to 12 months, while all other funder policies focused on medical research limit embargoes to six months.  Many funder and university OA policies, including the NIH policy, require immediate deposit in an OA repository, but none requires immediate OA release.  In short, the NIH policy doesn't provide the kind of immediate BBB OA that many OA journals routinely provide, but neither do any other funder and university policies.  The reason is not that NIH came first and set a bad example which late-comers imitated.  The reason is that funder and university policies must mandate OA in a way which is compatible with author freedom to publish in all or most journals as they are today, regardless of what we wish them to be (and what they might eventually become).  I'm whole-heartedly with those who want to solve this problem, go further, and provide BBB OA to all research literature, and at key points in the evolution of the NIH policy I've proposed exactly this tweak.  But we have to make progress in the landscape where we find ourselves, and we shouldn't mistake partial progress for regress.

Update (8/2/08).  Here's how Matt Cockerill made the point in a blog post on August 2, 2008:

...A recurring theme at this year's ISMB conference, especially at the Future of Science Publishing session in which BioMed Central participated, was the need to integrate text mining techniques and biomedical ontologies to make published biomedical articles and data more readily interpretable by computers. Open access is widely agreed to be a basic prerequisite to facilitate such 'semantic enrichment', and several researchers expressed frustration that while the now-mandatory NIH open access policy was driving  the deposit of embargoed manuscripts versions of articles in PubMed Central, due to licensing restrictions those articles were not available for download and text mining, even once converted into XML. The NIH policy is thus only a step along the road towards full open access, though an important one....

PS:  This is true.  Another way to put it is that the NIH policy provides gratis OA, while text mining generally requires libre OA.  (For more on gratis and libre OA, see my article in the August 2008 SOAN.)