In writing my recent article about the Royal Society's position statement on open access I contacted a number of Fellows of the Society, including some of those who had written an open letter objecting to the "largely negative stance" taken in the statement.
After publishing the article I received an e-mail from Professor Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs. Professor Roberts, who signed the open letter, had been travelling when I e-mailed my questions to him, so I was unable to incorporate his views into the article. Given the degree of interest that the Royal Society's position statement has generated I thought there would be value in publishing Professor Robert's response separately.
Professor Roberts is a Nobel Laureate, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a research editorial board member for the open access journal PLoS Biology, and senior executive editor of the journal Nucleic Acids, which is published by Oxford University Press and in January 2005 became the first traditional journal to go open access.
Q: Why did you sign the letter to the Royal Society?
A: I signed the letter because it expressed my own sentiments perfectly. I am a strong advocate of open access, and write about it and speak in favour of it whenever possible. I was appalled when I first read the Royal Society's statement.
Q: The Royal Society says that the open letter is based on a misunderstanding, since the Royal Society's position statement is only a re-statement of views it published on 24th November, and that these views were arrived at after extensive discussions that took place in February 2004. At that time these views were also approved by the Council for the Royal Society. Were you aware of those discussions? Did you take part in them? Did you object at the time?
A: The first I heard of this was when BioMed Central's Matt Cockerill sent me the statement. I had personally contacted the Royal Society about this issue several years ago and had spoken with Lord May [the former president of the Royal Society] about it. I was basically brushed off. However, I was not consulted or even forewarned of this statement.
In fact, I first drew the attention of this matter to the Royal Society in January 2001 (almost five years ago). At that time I had written an editorial piece for PNAS about open access and was lead author, and main protagonist, of a letter to Science about the issue. Now they call for a study — just 5 years too late!
Q: The Royal Society says that it has adopted its position on open access partly because of concerns raised by the mathematics, chemistry and physics communities within the Society, and that most of the signatories of the letter are from the life sciences. Is that your understanding?
A: I know that most of the signatories are from the life sciences. I have no knowledge of who has expressed opinions against open access. However, I would note that the physicists have had a form of open access of pre-publication results for a long time (thanks to Paul Ginsparg and his preprint server). The chemists seem to be held hostage by the American Chemical Society, which makes exorbitant charges for its journals and has firmly opposed open access, even to its older publications.
Q: The Royal Society says that the letter has been signed by just "a small number of the 1,274 Fellows." Is it fair to view the letter as representing only a minority view amongst Royal Society Fellows?
A: We won't know if it is a minority view because the Society has never been polled on this issue. Furthermore, I am still surprised that many scientists, and I suspect many Fellows of the Royal Society, are not even aware of the issue, or have not given it any real thought — so for such a poll to be effective there would need to be some education of the participants.
Q: How would you like to see the Royal Society respond to the letter?
A: I would have hoped to see a more conciliatory position taken and especially I would have liked to see some action. For the last three years there have been lots of words, basically opposing open access by calling for studies or more thought, but no actions. My mother taught me that actions speak louder than words.
Q: Has the Royal Society lost touch with its Fellows on this issue?
A: I think that the Royal Society has not only lost touch with its Fellows on this issue, but is out of touch with the pace of the younger scientists whose interests it should be looking after. Most young scientists don't even know where the library is these days. If they can't access the literature from their computer then it might as well not exist for them. So much for seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants! This is a real tragedy.
Q: The Royal Society's approach to open access is in stark contrast to that of the Wellcome Trust (which has mandated its funded researchers to make their papers open access). Why do you think that is? And what does the contrast signify?
A: This question gets to the heart of the matter. The Wellcome Trust has been bold and imaginative, and is to be applauded. I would note that they have no financial interests in opposing open access. The Royal Society by its own admission makes some profits from its publications, as do many scientific societies. If you really want to know why people do things I always think that one should follow the money first.