Jonathan Eisen has a new post up on his blog “The Tree of Life” tearing apart a letter from the Ecological Society of America (link is to a pdf). In the letter, the ESA comes out against the government requiring that papers funded by federal research dollars must be made available for free online after a set amount of time has passed since publication. Jonathan Eisen, one of the strongest voices in the open access movement, naturally finds this position disturbing. But why would a scientific society come out against the open dissemination of information? Here is my — entirely speculative — explanation.
First a little bit of background: right now research funded by the National Institutes of Health must be made freely available online within twelve months of publication. This can either mean publishing in an “open access” journal, or publishing in a traditional journal which allows the authors to deposit their results into a free online archive like PubMed Central after a year (something is pretty much all the biomedical journals do now, since not allowing it would mean almost no researcher should still publish papers in those journals). This mandate has worked out so successfully that it may end up being extended to all federally funded research (which means research funded by agencies like the Department of Energy, the USDA, and the National Science Foundation).
Ecologists who receive federal funding would almost never be funded through NIH, but they certainly might receive grants through DOE (bioenergy), USDA (integrated pest management), and they’d be most likely to receive money from NSF. So the Ecological Society of America, which also publishes a number of ecology focused journals, is confronting the idea that many of the articles it publishes may have to be made freely available online a year after publication. It seems that they fear letting people get access to research papers without paying to subscribe to their journals will mean a lot of universities will stop subscribing and without that money:
…the Society could not continue to provide the peer-review and editorial services needed to produce high quality scientific publications.
Now there is a whole separate argument I’m going to put to the side for now: Would placing papers online a year after publication would really cause universities to start dropping their subscriptions to ecology journals? (This clearly hasn’t been the case in the biomedical field, but the Ecology Society makes some points about how their field might be different). I honestly don’t know the answer. But for the sake of argument, let us say that the Ecological Society of Americas fear are well founded.
The most common way for journals to offset the loss of income from subscriptions is to implement what is known as the “author pays” open access model, where the authors of the paper pay the journal a set fee if their article is accepted for publication, and the article is freely available online from day one. The arguments for the “author pays” model (as opposed to open access itself which has more good arguments going for it than I can count) go a bit like this:
- Since universities already take a large cut out of any grants researchers receive as “indirect costs” to pay for — among other things — journal subscription fees, the journals are making money off of the authors’ grants, and at least this way researchers don’t have to continue paying for access to an article once it is published.
- Many journals already charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for papers that have color figures, too many pages, and/or more than a set number of supplementary materials. So clearly scientists can find the money to pay for having their papers published when they need to.
- Almost all reputable open access journals have policies in place which waive publication charges for authors who simply cannot pay.
*One alternative for-profit conferences (like PAG) already exist, but the atmosphere at these meetings is very different and because registration costs more (and housing since they tend to be held at more expensive locations) many labs can’t afford to send as many people (or anyone) as they can to other meetings.
**It should be noted that some ecology departments have mechanisms in place to punish students who win outside funding to cover their salaries, such as giving them last choice of which courses to teach in the years when their salary is not being covered by outside agencies.
***In which case the cost of subscribing to ecology journals is either being subsidized by other, better funded departments, or offset by the tuition payments of undergraduate students who sign up for ecology and evolutionary biology courses in droves (if only we could get undergrads as excited about plant biology!).