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California strikes a blow for research open access -- but pulls its punch

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Salmonella (red) colonizing the small intestine of a mouse.
(Kaiyi Zhang and Mathias Hornef / PLoS Pathogens)

The idea underlying the open access movement in academia is a simple one: most scientific research is funded by the public through federal or state grants. So why should reports of that research be handed over to commercial publishers, which then charge huge subscription fees to universities and libraries to read work the taxpayers have already paid for?

California has just become the first state in the union to call a foul on this practice. On Sept. 29, Gov. Brown signed legislation requiring that reports of research funded even in part by California taxpayers be made available to the public for free, starting with research grants made after next Jan. 1. (The legislation is AB 609, by Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert.)

“This is a big step forward for an individual state,” Richard Schneider, a professor of orthopedic surgery at UC San Francisco who is a leader in the open access movement at UC, told me.  

Yet, as is typical of policies that pit the public interest against well-entrenched commercial interests, AB 609 got very much watered down in the legislative process. The bill gives commercial publishers exclusive rights to California research for up to a year before the papers can be made public without charge; open-access advocates typically call for embargoes of no more than six months (as the original bill provided for), and preferably none at all.

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The original legislation also applied to all state-funded research; the final version applies only to research funded by the Dept. of Public Health. No one appears to be quite sure how much that narrows the bill because no one in Sacramento seems to have solid figures on how much research individual state agencies pay for; but the change plainly is significant.

It may also represent a lost opportunity. California researchers are major recipients of public grants and account for an immense volume of research papers; the state’s law, if it were much more aggressive, could have had as much influence on academic publishing as its fuel efficiency standards have on the auto industry and the environment. 

To understand the tug of war over academic publishing, let’s briefly take a step back. 

The commercial academic publishing business has been immensely profitable over the years, and why not? Publishers such as Reed Elsevier and Nature Publishing Group traditionally get their raw material free. University researchers clamor to place their papers in the most prestigious journals without compensation. The journals typically subject these articles to peer review -- by unpaid reviewers -- before publication. Then they collect subscription fees of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars a year from the same universities that provide the research.

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The open-access movement took root as university budgets began to get squeezed and the cost of journal subscriptions kept soaring and the Internet opened a new avenue to dissemination of research results. Among its seminal documents was the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access. Around the same time, a group of UC scientists launched the Public Library of Science, an academic press on the open-access model.

Rather than charge subscription fees, PLoS charges researchers to publish their papers; the original fee was $1,500. The idea was not chiefly to save money for universities at the expense of faculty members -- indeed, for universities with large faculties, the new model may be more costly than the old. The real goal was to wrest research copyrights from journal publishers; when researchers are paying for publication, they, not the publishers, retain control of their papers.

Since then, the open-access model has spread. In the most significant victory, the National Institute of Health, the world’s largest backer of civilian scientific research, mandated in 2008 that all NIH-funded papers be deposited in National Library of Medicine’s publicly accessible PubMed Central no later than 12 months after the original publication. 

The NIH policy didn’t entirely please open-access advocates, who feared the 12-month embargo would become the de facto standard. That’s what happened. “It’s hard to convince people to do something more radical than the federal government,” says Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley biologist who was one of the founders of PLoS. “Everyone has this crazy disconnect between the idea of giving everyone access to this research, but giving publishers up to a year to make money." 

UC followed up last year with a rule requiring its researchers to give the university a non-exclusive license to make their papers publicly available. But the rule has an opt-out clause to cover publication in journals that insist on exclusive rights, such as the highly prestigious Nature Publishing Group. That makes it obviously less than airtight, but UC experts say only a small percentage of papers have been opted-out. 

The dire predictions of open-access opponents that its spread would destroy academic publishing or lead to the proliferation of bad science haven’t come to pass. In a recent investment report, analysts at Stanford C. Bernstein & Co. concluded that Reed Elsevier, one of the world’s leading academic publishers, was doing just fine -- in fact, was even finding ways to profit from open access by launching open-access journals of its own.

As for research quality, some of the most eye-catching scandals in the field have involved traditional peer-reviewed journals, which have been found to publish manifestly shoddy or irreproducible work.

That brings us back to the mystery of why California’s new law is so timid. The bill’s drafters were concerned that imposing a shorter embargo than the NIH’s 12 months might create a conflict affecting California researchers’ eligibility for federal grants, says Nanette Farag, Nestande’s chief of staff. The 12-month standard helped to quell what she says was “a great deal of opposition from the publishing industry.”

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The bill was scaled back to cover only research funded by the Dept. of Public Health to allow the state to assess its effect over time, she said. “It’ a good test case,” she said. As it is so many other fields, California is an 800-pound gorilla in academic publishing. UC researchers account for 12% of the content of Nature, UCSF’s Schneider told me; among public institutions, UCSF itself is the largest single recipient of NIH funding. Had California imposed a six-month embargo or even outlawed any embargo, the rest of the world might have had to follow its lead.

“For publicly funded research, there’s no longer any reason to have any embargo period,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, a coalition of academic and research libraries in the open-access vanguard. She says that as open-access takes hold, the embargoes might shrink or vanish. “The hope is that people will recognize that shorter is better."  

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