Friday, May 12, 2006

Publish and perish

Two of my least favorite CongressThings, RepublicanDemocrat Joe Lieberman (CT) and Republican John Cronyn (TX), have introduced legislation I like very much indeed. It mandates that research funded by some eleven different government agencies, including NIH and NSF, be made freely available within six months of publication. Quite right. Taxpayers have already paid for it once. Why should we pay for it again via rapacious journal subscriptions whose price has far outpaced inflation at the same time production and distribution costs have plummeted?

Not surprisingly, the for-profit publishers are up in arms:
"Mandating that journal articles be made freely available on government Web sites so soon after their publication will be a powerful disincentive for publishers to continue these substantial investments," Brian Crawford, chairman of the professional publishers' trade group, said on Tuesday.

About 70 percent of a typical article's usage value occurs after six months, Crawford said, citing independent librarian research and publishers' own accounts.

He said that publishers are already taking voluntary steps to make more research available and that they firmly oppose the legislation. They are calling instead for an independent study to scrutinize the potential effect the proposal might have on research quality and taxpayer costs. Individual publishers deferred comment to Crawford's group, the Professional Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). (Reuters Health)
Let's look at this for a moment. Even assuming the truth of the 70% number, a journal article that is 6 months old is not an incentive to subscribe to a journal. You either have to buy the paper separately from the publisher or hope your library has a subscription, preferably an electronic one. The idea that journals are the engines of research and their investment is essential is vastly overdrawn, if not false. Prior to the electronic age, the main value added of a publisher was in printing and distribution. Neither function is needed anymore.

This is not to say that commercial publishers add no value. Many major journals like Science and Nature have journalists who provide important news stories and craft interpretive pieces important to a well informed profession. Even Open Access publishers like BioMed Central or the Public Library of Science charge production fees that cover the costs of developing, deploying and maintaining websites, software tools and formatting systems that make web-based publishing possible (disclosure: one of the Reveres is Editor-in-Chief of an Open Access peer-reviewed scientific journal). But many of these tools may be widely available in free or in Open Source form in the near future, allowing scientific journals to be as easily published as blogs and wikis are today.

In the meantime, I wouldn't invest in a commercial scientific publishing house, even though they are now extremely profitable ventures. Their time has come, whether or not this bill passes. The request for an independent study might buy them time but it won't solve their basic problem, which is that we don't need them anymore.

Good riddance.