February 2012, Week 2


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Fri, 10 Feb 2012 22:50:43 -0500
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The Other Academic Freedom Movement 

How Scientists Broke Through the Paywall and Made Their
Articles Available to (Almost) Everyone. 

By Konstantin Kakaes 
Feb. 9, 2012

In the summer of 1991, Paul Ginsparg, a researcher at
the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, set up an email
system for about 200 string theorists to exchange papers
they had written. The World Wide Web was a mere infant-
it had been opened to the public on Aug. 6 of that year.
The string theorists weren't particularly interested in
making their research widely available (outsiders would
have a tough time following the conversation anyhow).
Ginsparg's archive was a way for the theorists to
communicate with one another.

For a short while, it would remain an insular tool for
exchanging the latest theories of quantum gravity. But
the novel system of communication would become the basis
for a new model of academic publishing. Some wags would
later joke that it was string theory's greatest
contribution to science.

By 1996, Ginsparg would write: "Many of us have long
been aware that certain physics journals currently play
NO role whatsoever for physicists. Their primary role
seems to be to provide a revenue stream to publishers, a
revenue stream invisibly siphoned from overhead on
research contracts through library systems." The arXiv,
as it came to be known, was by then used widely in
physics; some mathematicians and computer scientists had
also started using it. Ginsparg had increasingly turned
from doing physics to running the archive. (In 2002, he
even received a MacArthur "genius grant" for his work on
the arXiv .)

Since April 2008, researchers with funding from the
National Institutes of Health have been required to
submit their articles to a site called PubMedCentral,
one of the arXiv's offspring. After an embargo period
(up to 12 months post-publication), the articles are
openly accessible. During the embargo period, journals
would have the option of restricting access to
subscribers and charging nonsubscribers on a per-article
basis (about $30). This experiment in open-access
publishing is now on the verge of ending altogether or
becoming the new status quo, depending on which
politicians win an important legislative battle.

The Federal Research Public Access Act, reintroduced
today by a bipartisan assortment of politicians, would
broaden the open-access requirement to nearly all
federally funded research. The rationale is that
taxpayers, having paid once for the research, shouldn't
have to pay again to read what was done. Today's bill is
a response to the Research Works Act, which was
introduced in December. The Research Works Act would
roll back NIH's open-access policy and prohibit the
government from imposing any similar policies in the

The invisibly siphoned revenue stream that Ginsparg
referred to comes from institutional subscriptions,
which don't come cheap. A year's print subscription to
Cancer Genetics, say, will run you (without discounts)
$5,010 per year. (Individuals can subscribe for $280.)
Cancer Genetics, along with 2,637 other journals, is
published by Elsevier, a multinational conglomerate that
made $1.1 billion last year on $3.2 billion in revenue-a
36 percent profit margin. This is typical of the
industry. It helps that the "referees" who peer-review
journal articles perform the job for free. (Almost 5,000
scholars are now boycotting Elsevier in protest of
price-gouging and other practices, in a movement started
by a British mathematician on Jan. 21.) Erik Engstrom,
Elsevier's current CEO, made $3.2 million in 2010; his
predecessor Ian Smith got more than $1.7 million as a
parting gift when he left after eight months on the job.

A journal article serves many purposes. One of them is
to make money for publishers. Scientists and other
academics publish in scholarly journals as a
credentialing mechanism and, secondarily, to tell people
about their work. Journals used to be crucial for both
of these reasons, but in a world where academics could
just post a paper up on their own websites, the primary
purpose of a journal article is its professional
validation. That's why it makes some sense that the
authors of a journal article should pay for the
privilege of that validation, via peer review, rather
than readers paying for the privilege of reading.

That is the reasoning behind the Public Library of
Science (PLoS), a nonprofit group of seven journals that
launched in October 2003. The PLoS journals weren't the
first "open-access" journals, but they have become the
standard-bearers of the rapidly growing movement. PLoS
journals charge authors between $1,350 and $2,900 per
article, which goes to cover overhead. The work is then
freely available to all on the Web. These fees are paid
for out of research grants directly, rather than, as in
the old system, being siphoned through university
libraries. For those who can't pay (for instance,
scientists from poor countries), the costs are waived.

Such "open-access" models blur the current legislative
debate a bit. Since articles published in open-access
journals are freely available from the get-go, the legal
requirement that they be made accessible after some
waiting period becomes moot. But it is a spur for old-
fashioned journals, which stand to lose if their
archives are made freely available, to change their
business model.

There is little doubt that author-pays models will be
less lucrative than the subscription-based models,
because they do not allow for the same rates of growth-
it's easier to grow a subscriber base than an author
base. But it does seem the fees can cover production
costs, even though the old guard tries to argue
otherwise. Allan Adler of the Association of American
Publishers, which has been leading the lobbying push
against public-access mandates, says he doubts the open-
access business model is "sustainable." However, PLoS
brought in more than it spent in 2010, and its CEO,
Peter Jerram, made $432,640 in 2010-it's not a
shoestring operation, even if it doesn't come with

The open-access movement has been gathering steam.
Harvard adopted an open-access policy in 2008. The
policy requires faculty to grant their institution a
nonexclusive right to freely distribute their scholarly
articles. Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, and the University of
California-Berkeley followed in September 2009; as did
Princeton in September 2011. But the university policies
allow their researchers to apply for waivers from the
open-access requirement if publishers won't let them
make their papers available. The current NIH rule and
the broader Federal Research Public Access Act have no
such loophole.

The open-access movement has strong momentum. After a
hacker was arrested in July 2011 for breaking into
JSTOR, an online archive of journal articles, the
company opened up first some of its archive from before
1923 to the public, then later granted limited open
access to more recent articles. In England, the Royal
Society made its historical archives, including its
Philosophical Transactions, first published in 1665 and
thus the world's oldest peer-reviewed publication, open-
access in October. More recent publications were also
made more available, albeit after (at most) a one- to
two-year post-publication embargo. Google Scholar has
wide coverage and frequently gives the public access to
full text, even of subscription-gated papers, via
researchers' websites (though it omits PDFs over 5
megabytes, irking researchers in disciplines like
archaeology that rely on larger image files). JSTOR's
future in the world of Google Scholar is tenuous.

Of course, most scientists already get unfettered access
to the journals they need through their institutions.
But the current ecosystem of publishing still is not
particularly healthy for them. Scientists joke about
things like the minimum publishable unit (also least
publishable unit, or, for short "publon"). Maximizing
the number of publications while minimizing their
intellectual content doesn't serve any broader interest.
But it's the inevitable result when the number of
publications (which is objectively verifiable) becomes
disproportionally important in relation to the quality
of insight. Academic administrators have grown
increasingly concerned with the "impact factor" of
journals-i.e., how often the journal is cited. This, in
turn, has led to pressure on researchers to cite for the
sake of citing.

The progress of science won't turn on the publishing
model. Journal articles are the shadow of science, not
science itself. But by taking power away from journal
publishers, open-access (and public-access mandates)
should make for a healthier scientific ecosystem. It
won't immediately fix the "publon" effect, but charging
for publication should exert at least a slight pressure
on scientists to actually have something to say.

Elsevier and other commercial publishers have an
incentive to encourage the publication of as many papers
as possible, regardless of the quality. In a statement,
Elsevier says laws like FRPA "could undermine the
sustainability of the peer-review publishing system."
These claims are easily mocked.

The shell game here is the oldest one in politics: an
attempt to pass off the parochial interest of the few
(journal publishers) as a broader societal benefit. The
debate in Congress cuts across ideological lines--the
competing bills have Republican and Democratic co-
sponsors in both the House and the Senate. It should be
mentioned here that Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a sponsor of
the Research Works Act, got $15,750 in donations from
the Elsevier and its executives in the last two years
(out of a total of $119,300 that the company and its
executives spent on congressional races). The bills are
likely to be held up in Congress for quite a while. The
White House, in the meanwhile, is conducting its own
review of the issue.

Smaller journals will suffer in coming years, as they
give way to informal sharing among colleagues and lower-
margin open-access replacements. Top-tier publications
like Nature and Science will survive; in fact, the
publishers of both journals have publicly said they
oppose the Research Works Act. They will survive because
they have acquired such stature that a result is no
longer published in Nature or Science because it's
important; it's important because it was published in
Nature or in Science.

Whatever the White House ends up saying, and even if
Congress remains gridlocked, the movement toward open
publishing now seems irreversible. In 1996, Ginsparg
said that it wasn't a question of if, but when
"commercial publishers accustomed to large pre-tax
profit margins" would find themselves unable to compete
with a "global raw research archive" combined with
"high-quality peer-reviewed overlays." The answer to his
question seems clear: now.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration
among Arizona State University, the New America
Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways
emerging technologies affect society, policy, and
culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and
the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on


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