PoliSci: House acts on research access

By DEE ANN DIVIS, United Press International   |   Aug. 27, 2004 at 3:47 PM
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The first in an occasional series of articles on changes in scientific publishing.

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WASHINGTON, AUG. 4 (UPI) -- Anger over limits on access to research results, due largely to high publication prices, has risen to the point a federal backlash is brewing.

Congress is moving to force a shift to "open access," a form of free-to-consumer publishing, for scientific papers. The move angers commercial publishers, who see their livelihoods threatened, and scares scientific societies, who are afraid they will face revenue losses or new costs they cannot afford. Even librarians, who pushed for the move, are cautious, because they are concerned for the health of the scientific societies.

Peer-reviewed journals are the life's blood of scientific research. Through these quality-controlled vehicles, researchers can tap into what one another is doing. Journals often allow doctors to find out about new discoveries to help their patients, for example.

Prices for journals have skyrocketed, however. Some journals cost less that a few hundred dollars annually, but it is not unusual for an institution to pay $5,000 a year for a single, commercially published title. Some are running as high as $10,000 to over $20,000. Depending on whom you talk to, those prices are up 100 percent to 150 percent from levels 10 years ago.

"The inflation in journals is second only to medical benefits in terms of price increases," Carol Fleishauer told United Press International. Fleishauer is the associate director for collection services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Libraries.

High prices are closely linked to a lack of access to research results. The copyrights for the articles are largely held by the journal publishers. Some papers are eventually made available online for free, but many, if not most, are not. Commercial publishers in particular are archiving articles and charging for access. Non-subscribers, such as someone looking for the latest research on his or her child's illness, can purchase individual articles from these firms, but even those prices can be high -- $25 to $30 per paper.

The accumulation of price increases appears to be what has angered Congress -- that and the fact federal dollars support much of the research written about in the papers.

"Taxpayers not only have to pay for the research, they have to pay to read it," said Micah Swafford, spokesman for Congressman Ernest Istook Jr., R-Okla.

In mid-July, the House Appropriations Committee approved legislation funding the Department of Health and Human Services for fiscal year 2005. Accompanying the bill was a report, with language by Istook, ordering the National Institutes of Health to develop a plan for electronic archiving. The institutes are to find a way to put an electronic copy of any paper resulting from NIH-funded research on PubMed Central, the free digital library maintained by the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.

As proposed, copies would be available six months after their journal publication date or -- if the publishing of the paper itself is partially paid for by NIH -- the initial manuscript would be available immediately on PubMed.

NIH must report its plan to Congress by Dec. 1, and it is to be implemented in FY 2005 -- that is, immediately. To get the ball rolling, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, NIH's director, held a meeting July 28 with invited stakeholders to hear their views.

Representatives of scientific societies and publishers, some of whom attended the meeting, told UPI they were concerned articles would be placed on PubMed before they were properly peer-reviewed. Even if the final versions were posted, there would the possibility of confusion, they said.

More urgent, however, the societies are worried that free publication would kill their financial base.

"If you mandate that you immediately turn this over to a public link, then your subscriptions are going to go down and you are going to lose advertising," said Paul Kincade, President of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Delaying any posting of the manuscripts until six months after publication might help, but it would not fit the needs of some groups.

Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, noted that a six-month delay for a quarterly magazine still would put most of the content on the Web for free relatively soon after the publication schedule.

He also expressed concern that societies would have added expenses from the requirement to post to PubMed. There also was no assurance that a link in PubMed would refer back to the Journal Web site. Though Frank did not mention it, such a lack of links could result in reduced revenue for advertising-supported sites.

The societies are looking at the House measure as a harbinger of what is to come for all journals, but not all data have to be treated the same, said one expert who asked not to be named. Clinical data on new treatments are time-critical for doctors and very ill patients, this person pointed out.

This sort of information, which the source considered the real driver behind the House move, could be posted immediately. Other material, the expert asserted, could be posted on a more time-delayed basis without undue hardship.

Whatever the changes NIH suggests to accommodate such concerns, it will have to work hard between now and Dec. 1 to make the deadline.

The next step, however, appears to be in the House, where a colloquy will be held this fall. This will be a "discussion," completely scripted, between two Congress members to clarify what Congress wants from NIH. There is no doubt that publishers and other interest groups will be fighting over every syllable to expand or limit the plan's impact.

It should be noted at this point that the appropriations bill has not yet passed.

No matter, said Swafford, "It will become law."

"There are levels of 'pay attention' and this is pretty serious," Ellen Paul, executive director of the Ornithological Council, told UPI. She and others suspect that the move in the House indicates enough momentum that some sort of change is inevitable.

Perhaps the change will not be made by Congress, however.

A well-connected source, who asked not to be named, told UPI some societies, which had turned their journals over to for-profit publishing houses, are actively looking at taking them back in-house. The insider said the societies had already met on the issue and had discussed lowering prices when they took the journals back.

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Next: a closer look at prices

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Dee Ann Divis is UPI's Senior Science & Technology Editor. E-mail: ddivis@upi.com

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