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Fwd: Sabo Legislation/PLoS editorial

Here is an editorial that I published in the Journal of Cell Biology on
Thursday, July 3rd on the proposed Sabo legislation and PLoS.  It might be
of interest.  It is freely available at the site below and also attached
as plain text:  <http://www.jcb.org/cgi/content/full/jcb.200307018>

Also available on the home page website: <http://www.jcb.org>



Proposed legislation supports an untested publishing model 
Michael J Held 
Executive Director, Rockefeller University Press

Free access to information is a powerful and alluring concept. Under the
"Public Access to Science Act," recently introduced into the U.S. House of
Representatives by Representative Martin O. Sabo (Democrat, Minnesota),
papers describing scientific research substantially funded by the U.S.  
Government would be excluded from copyright protection. This is proposed
as a means to guarantee free access to this information.

Representing the Rockefeller University Press (RUP), a nonprofit
department of the Rockefeller University and publisher of The Journal of
Cell Biology, I take issue with a number of the points made by the Sabo
Act. It appears to me that this is a thinly veiled attempt by Harold
Varmus and the other founders of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) to
eventually force all publishers into their open access publishing model.  
As this publishing model is unproven and may well be unsustainable, this
is an irresponsible act.

Science publishing: Models and costs The mission of RUP includes the
dissemination of scientific information to as broad an audience as
possible as quickly as possible, so I am certainly not opposed to much of
what the PLoS advocates. We at RUP welcome another player in the
publishing field, and wish them well in their mission of providing free
content by relying on upfront fees and charitable contributions. However,
to attempt to legislate the demise of the time-honored subscription-based
business model, prior to proving that another model works, does not seem
wise. (The debut issue of PLoS Biology, the first journal from PLoS, is
not due out until October, and the long-term financial health of the
enterprise remains to be seen.) It is true that there are commercial
publishers that reap profit for their shareholders from the sale of their
journals, but there are also many not-for-profit society and university
publishers that operate at little if any profit. In the cases where profit
is made by the latter group, it is used to provide more features, more
content, or educational programs that benefit society as a whole.

Print journals aside, the costs of producing an online journal are not
trivial, and involve those of peer review, copyediting, production, and
distribution (including costs in providing high speed access worldwide).  
New technologies are needed for the failsafe storage and secure
maintenance of a large archive, and for the development of new features
and search capabilities that make the material more readily available and
of greater value to the researcher. In addition, many journals, including
those at RUP, provide a valuable service in sifting through and
interpreting (through news and commentary) a mountain of scientific data
that is ever increasing. All this costs money. The RUP journals and many
of the society journals exist by receiving revenue from a variety of
sources: subscription and license fees, page and color charges to authors,
advertising, and permissions for commercial use. In this manner, we are
able to avoid charging any one participant in the process too much, and we
keep our fees as low as possible. Ironically, an open access model may end
up threatening the ability of some researchers to publish their research
if all costs are lumped into a large upfront payment.

The various models for open access by groups such as PLoS, Scholarly
Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), CreateChange,
E-BioSci, and BioMed Central, among others, are honorable, noble
experiments in dealing with the current publication dilemma. However, I
see no reason at the present time to destroy the subscription model until
we see that these new models can survive, any more than I see fit to kill
off print immediately, solely because some want to, as opposed to waiting
until the public says it is no longer needed. It is far better for all of
us to work together cooperatively for the good of disseminating science,
rather than to be in constant discord, thereby creating animosity among
researchers, publishers, and librarians, and delaying progress.

Those of us in the nonprofit sector are the natural allies of "open
access." This is especially true for the large cadre of scientists who
have for years donated extraordinary amounts of their expertise, time, and
dedication to advancing the essential cause of free and open scientific
communication, and done so long before PLoS appeared on the scene. The
current effort, instigated by a small group and funded privately, is
already having the effect of splitting the community. Their actions,
embodied by the Sabo legislation, would appear to have a self-interested
purpose of increasing the success of their own philosophy and business
model, to the possible detriment of all others. There are many other
options to be explored, and indeed that already exist, to ensure "open

Existing free content 

Many of the publishers (like RUP) that are in the middle of the publishing
spectrum -- the organizations situated between the open access advocates
and the commercial publishing conglomerate -- have already been
instrumental in promoting free back content. These organizations publish a
large percentage of the most important scientific findings, asking for the
advice of the already over-committed top researchers to peer review the
content prior to publication. Many of these publishers banded together
with the assistance of HighWire Press, a division of Stanford University
Library System. This allows publishers with far fewer resources than the
large commercial publishers to compete in the online arena.

An important feature of HighWire is its free content. To date 556,915
articles in 335 journals at HighWire are available online for free, and
this number grows daily. Currently, the RUP journals, and those of many
HighWire and some commercial publishers, make all of their content freely
available to countries that are defined by the World Health Organization
as developing nations. For more advanced nations, the three RUP journals
are also available free after 6 months (The Journal of Cell Biology) or 12
months (The Journal of Experimental Medicine and The Journal of General
Physiology). HighWire publishers allow free full-text access to articles
from the references of one another's journals. Finally, RUP provides for
free a fully searchable archive of pdfs back to 1975, and within the year
we expect to provide free pdfs all the way back to Volume 1, Issue 1 of
each of our journals.

Open access and Sabo

The Sabo legislation would force scientific publishers into the PLoS open
access model, because as soon as we publish anything funded by the U.S.  
Government it would be available for anyone else to republish or repurpose
in any form once they gained access to our online or print editions.  
Anyone could then post it to any open access site, or a commercial
publisher could also post it, claiming huge amounts of data available at
one location, clearly an advantage to the librarian. What would then be
the incentive or value to publishers that need to rely on a proper
business model rather than on charitable contributions as PLoS is
currently doing?

Sabo's draft legislation is in effect overturning legislation that was put
in place to protect an author's works, i.e., copyright law. RUP continues
to hold copyright to prevent misuse of the materials by third parties or
commercial organizations, and as part of this duty we handle permissions
on the authors' behalf. However, we allow authors unrestricted use of
their own materials for any purpose, and we encourage them to post the
pdfs of their articles on their or their university's web sites.

The U.S. Government supports both research and the writing of that
research, just as it contributes to research whose results are patented.  
As I understand it, the U.S. Government does not own that information by
virtue of providing grant funding, except in those cases where the work is
performed at a government agency, in which case the work is considered a
work for hire and the government retains copyright, thereby allowing free
dissemination of that work. I cannot imagine how a law such as the Sabo
legislation would work, with some funds coming from the government, others
from a university, and others from private resources. There are frequently
collaborations involving many sources and foreign governments. What is the
strategy for dealing with such cases?

Constructive thinking

The fact remains that a large swathe of papers are published by for-profit
publishers. The more highly cited of these journals offer a valuable
product but negligible free material. Based on experience at RUP and other
nonprofit publishers, posting of older content for free holds no financial
risks for the publisher and huge benefit for the consumer, and yet the
for-profit publishers continue to resist such ideas. Can we be
constructive in thinking of approaches to address this problem, so that we
can influence these publishers in ways that are less destructive to all
publishers than the Sabo bill?

The power to coerce lies with those who pay the bills: the librarians. If
librarians can act together they can insist on solutions that are both
financially viable for publishers and morally acceptable for consumers.  
Meanwhile, authors who have work that is valid but of lower impact can
vote with their words by publishing in no-frills open access sites such as
BioMed Central, rather than in obscure for-profit titles that are bundled
in large, expensive packages that libraries feel pressured to buy.

Finally, this draft legislation is named the "Public Access to Science
Act" yet it really is about copyright. Copyright and public access are two
entirely different entities, with one not necessarily affecting the other.  
As shown above, a copyright holder can still provide free access, and in
fact granting copyright back to authors (as has also been proposed by
PLoS) could prevent any form of free access because permission to post
material would have to be obtained from each individual author. Publishers
such as RUP seek to hold secure copyright so that we can ensure that we
have both the legal right and the resources to guarantee free access,
albeit after a brief interval.

The Internet bubble of the late 1990s showed that the obvious attraction
of free content can flounder when faced with economic reality. The Sabo
bill threatens to destroy a system that has become extremely efficient at
disseminating scientific information in its many forms, without carefully
examining the consequences of copyright prohibition. As such it is a hasty
and ill-timed measure.

Michael J. Held
Executive Director
The Rockefeller University Press
1114 First Avenue, 4th Flr
New York, NY 10021
Phone: 212-327-8571
Fax:   212-327-8589