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Eminent Domain Stuff

New London Update (2/24/06)
Coverage of the Rally at New London's City Hall (w/ pics)

Thursday, September 09, 2004


Scientific Journals And The NIH

The Scientist is reporting that:

Papers based on NIH-funded research would be freely available 6 months after their publication, according to a draft National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy released Friday (September 3) in an apparent compromise with journal publishers.
I've been watching the debate over the way in which scientific papers are made available for some time. Traditionally, journals have followed the typical business plan of asking customers to pay for the right to read their content. Before the Internet age everything was in print and so it made perfect sense to sell the journal in the same way the any magazine is sold. There have always been issues about how much a given subscription costs, but institutions were willing to pay because there was no choice.

Now, with the advent of Pub Med and other searchable databases, there is increasing demand for 'open access' publications (although maintenance of online databases is obviously not free). Pub Med is run by NIH and archives every scientific paper published. However, it contains only the reference information and the abstract of the paper. If you want the electronic full text, it's up to the journal whether or not to charge for that service.

There is, however, a growing movement of new journals coming out that are 'open access,' meaning that they publish online and the full text is free to anyone...and is accessible from any search engine (Google, etc.). These journals stay afloat by requiring authors of the papers to pay the costs normally carried by the consumer. The rationale for paying this fee, from the authors' point of view, is that their papers will have a greater impact if they are available for free. I don't think that we have yet seen the fruition of this 'impact factor' effect with open access journals given the historical dominance of such journals as Science, Nature and Cell. However, I do think that we will see a shift towards easier access (if not truly open access) in the relatively near future.

This new development where NIH is going to force all journals publishing NIH-funded research to essentially give away that content after 6 months has the potential to have either positive or negative effects.

From the point of view of the general public, I think that this development is perfectly fair. After all, NIH funds research with tax dollars, so shouldn't the public have access to the fruits of such money? Additionally, free and open access to journal articles can only help advance science.

On the other hand, the capitalist in me sees this as a dangerous development. We are now going to force private companies (the journals) to give away their intellectual property for free. Even with the 6 month window, I would predict that most fee-for-subscription journals will see their subscriptions decline. I'm not convinced by Harold Varmus' statement that:

...the policy may immediately produce some loss in profits, but predicted that "good journals" would survive the change. Ultimately, he said, complete open access will reduce production costs. "They will have to change their business plan," he added.
Well of course they'll have to "change their business plan." How will they change it? I guess they'll have to plan around the fact that they're going to lose money.

Since all of this is supposedly aimed at improving science the question must be raised as to how this will affect an author's choice of journal and a journal's choice of author to publish. There are a few possibilities that come to mind...

First, we could see journals choosing to publish authors' work more frequently if it is funded by some agency other than NIH, exempting them from this requirement (for now...), while from the authors' side, we could see researchers looking for more non-NIH funding than we have previously.

Second, we might see a huge shakeup in terms of the traditional hierarchy of the various journals with those offering open access finding their way to the top and those charging for access falling down the rungs. If this scenario plays out it seems likely that all journals will be forced to go with open access in addition to complying with the new NIH rules.

Whatever the actual outcome, I do think that one thing is certain. The high-tier journals (Science, Nature, etc.) have been charging huge subscription fees for years on end mostly because they can. The competitive environment is such that it is very difficult for a small journal to compete, and so most settle for 'trade journal' status, filling a niche but with very little hope of attaining the lofty status of the big publications. The new NIH rules may very well cause a serious shakeup in the scientific publishing pecking order. It will be interesting to see how this all shapes up.


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