Sunday, September 18, 2005

Starting a new bushfire

As the dispute between the The American Chemical Society (ACS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rumbles on it is becoming increasingly apparent that providing open access to publicly-funded data is more complicated, and more controversial, than anyone could have anticipated. Why else, after all, is the Open Access Movement — 10+ years after Stevan Harnad's Subversive Proposal — still struggling to make scientific research papers freely available on the Web?

On the surface the decision by NIH to create PubChem — a freely accessible database containing chemical structures of small organic molecules and information on their biological activities — seemed simple, straightforward, and eminently desirable.

The move, however, immediately pushed NIH into an apparently endless dispute with ACS, which claims that the planned open-access database would threaten ACS' revenue from Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) — the highly profitable division of the ACS that sells access to its CAS Registry. In a public statement dated May 23rd CAS claimed that PubChem will over time "pose an insurmountable threat to CAS' survival" since it is "a mini-replica of the CAS Registry, and a replica poised to expand."

Since then there has been a continuous, and at times bitter, debate about NIH's plan, with contradictory claims over the extent to which PubChem would or would not duplicate what CAS offers, and questions raised as to whether building such a database was even an appropriate task for NIH to undertake.

One of CAS' early tactics was to argue that it was wrong for NIH to use public money to build PubChem. However, critics were quick to point out that the allegedly threatened CAS Registry database was itself built with taxpayers' money — in the form of a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). They also argued that as a non-profit organisation CAS has over the years benefited substantially from the public purse in the form of tax concessions — making its objections to PubChem sound somewhat hypocritical.

Presumably sensing that it was losing the PR war, in August the ACS offered to develop and support a freely available database that would include data from NIH screening centres, as well as other compounds with associated bioassay data. To support the project it pledged $10 million and 15 staff members over five years.

The offer, however, was rejected by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. He did so for a number of reasons, not least — as he pointed out in a letter to ACS President William Carroll dated August 22nd — because under the requirements of the Federal Acquisitions Regulation, NIH "would not be able to enter into an exclusive bilateral relationship with ACS without such an opportunity being made available to other private sector suppliers of chemical information. "More importantly, the letter stated, if NIH accepted ACS' proposal "some of the most critical aspects of PubChem would be lost."

In the same letter, however, Zerhouni proposed a six-part "alternative structure". Amongst other things this would include collaboration between CAS and NIH to assign registry numbers for PubChem structures, and a promise that PubChem "will not disseminate information on chemical reactions, measured properties, methods, patents and applications, markush structures, or conference information."

In offering the patent concession, however, Zerhouni is in danger of starting a new bushfire, since the proposal is sure to inflame the passions of patent information searchers.

In a posting to the Patent Information Users Group mailing list on September 17th, for instance, self-styled patent buster Greg Aharonian — who also runs the Patnews  mailing list — complained: "If this is right, the public funded NIH that is building a public funded chemical database is agreeing not to include publicly funded information from publicly available patents. This is wrong, and people (led by the PTO) should contact the NIH to lobby that they include as much information as possible from patents into PubChem."

He added: "Over time, PubMed + Pubchem will become an ever more useful tool for PTO examiners to search through [in order] to issue high quality patents. And higher quality patents is a service the government should be providing."

We should feel some pity for Zerhouni: in seeking to get ACS off his back he is in danger of attracting the wrath of one of the more voluble and argumentative information user communities.

Certainly no one would willingly put themselves in the sniper sights of Aharonian. As Wired magazine commented a few years ago, when describing Aharonian's endless battle against "crappy" software patents, "Aharonian isn't just a loose cannon — he's a carpet bomber. Patnews, a sort of Drudge Report for the patent world, targets corporations, patent attorneys, bad patents, and, invariably, the PTO for the failures of the patent system. Patnews' 3,900 subscribers, and the many more who read forwarded copies, view him alternately as a self-serving wonk, a tireless public advocate, and a pain in the ass."

Friday, September 16, 2005

Education Guardian | Open access failings 'cost UK £1.5bn' | E-learning | Open access failings 'cost UK £1.5bn'

Jimmy Leach

The UK is losing around £1.5bn annually because of its failure to embrace open access publishing, according to an open access advocate.

Stevan Harnad, of the American Scientist Open Access Forum and professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton, has calculated the potential return on the investment in scientific research findings that are being lost to the UK each year through what he views as the limitations of the current academic publishing environment....

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

£1.5 billion lost annually in potential return on British science?

In a preprint archived today, Professor Stevan Harnad, Moderator of the American Scientist Open Access Forum and Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science, estimates the potential return on the UK's investment in its scientific research findings that is being lost to the UK each year through the limitations of the current academic publishing environment are £1.5 billion annually.

Arguing that the United Kingdom is not making the most of its public investment in research, Harnad points out that the Research Councils UK (RCUK) currently spend £3.5 billion pounds annually, and the UK produces at least 130,000 research journal articles per year, but that publication alone does not maximise the return on that investment.

"Research, if it has any value, must not only be published, but used, applied, and built upon by other researchers," he explains in a Southampton University press release publicising his paper. "This 'research impact' can be measured by the number of times an article is cited by other articles — the more accurate way to regard it is as a 'citation impact'."

He adds that under the current publishing model "a published article is accessible only to those researchers who happen to be at institutions that can afford to subscribe to the particular journal in which it was published." As such, the number of times it is cited will be limited by the number of people who can gain access to it.

However, in the online age, he adds, it is now possible for authors to self-archive their publications by placing them on their own institutional website "thereby providing free access to the research to everyone who is interested."

In the abstract to his paper — Maximising the Return on UK's Public Investment in Research — Harnad explains how he has attempted to estimate the cost to researchers and the country of failing to self-archive: "The online-age practice of self-archiving has been shown to increase citation impact by a dramatic 50-250%, but so far only 15% of researchers are doing it spontaneously," he says, adding: "Citation impact is rewarded by universities (through promotions and salary increases) and by research-funders like RCUK (through grant funding and renewal) at a conservative estimate of £46 per citation"

Based on this, Harnad estimates that the 85% of the UK's annual journal article output that is not yet self-archived translates into an annual loss of £2,541,500 in revenue to UK researchers "for not having done (or delegated) the few extra keystrokes per article it would have taken to self-archive their final drafts."

He adds that if we then calculate the loss of potential returns on UK research investment the impact loss translates into a far bigger one for the British public. "As a proportion of the RCUK’s yearly £3.5bn research expenditure, our conservative estimate would be 50% x 85% x £ = £1.5bn worth of loss in potential research impact."

The solution, he concludes, is obvious, and one that has been proposed by the RCUK. We should "extend the existing universal 'publish or perish' requirement to 'publish and also self-archive your final draft on your institutional website'."

In short, Harnad believes that the UK needs without delay to mandate all its publicly-funded researchers to deposit copies of their papers in e-print repositories — thereby maximising the return on the UK's research-investment dollars, and in the process maximising the financial gain to researchers themselves!

UK library community responds to the RCUK Proposal

Three professional associations from the British and Irish library community have sent a joint response to the Research Councils UK's published position paper on ways of improving access to research outputs. Amongst other things, the RCUK proposal recommends that publicly-funded researchers be mandated to self-archive their research papers in e-print repositories.

In a letter dated 25th August, and released publicly today, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), CURL (Consortium of Research Libraries) and SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries) have welcomed the RCUK's proposal and say they warmly support the principles underlying the position statement.

"We believe that the statement is a reasonable and balanced approach to current issues and has the potential to make significant improvements to research communication," the letter reads. It adds: "We would urge RCUK to adopt the statement as its policy as soon as possible."

The letter suggests, however, that the proposal could be improved by specifying that journal articles resulting from research funded by the Research Councils should be made available by deposit in an open-access e-print repository within three months of their publication.  

The associations' concern relates to paragraph14b of the position paper, which they fear includes two potential "loopholes" that would allow publishers who oppose the proposal to prevent authors or institutions from complying with the RCUK policy.

The paragraph in question reads: "Where research is funded by Research Councils and undertaken by researchers with access to an open access e-print repository (institutional or subject-based), Councils will make it a condition for all grants awarded from 1 October 2005 that a copy of all resultant published journal articles or conference proceedings (but not necessarily the underlying data) should be deposited in and/or accessible through that repository, subject to copyright or licensing arrangements... Deposit should take place at the earliest opportunity, wherever possible at or around the time of publication, in accordance with copyright and licensing arrangements."

As it stands, the associations say, this paragraph raises two problems:

The first problem relates to the phrase "subject to copyright or licensing arrangements". This, the associations argue, "allows publishers simply to change their copyright transfer agreements in order to prevent deposition in e-print repositories." Although the majority of large publishers currently allow deposition, the letter adds "we have reason to believe that some are reviewing their position on this."

The second problem, say the associations, relates to the phrase that "deposit should take place at the earliest opportunity, wherever possible at or around the time of publication, in accordance with copyright and licensing arrangements."

Since no timescale is specified for deposit, the associations say "it will be possible for publishers to introduce embargoes on articles."

They add that Oxford University Press has already recently introduced a general 12 month embargo and is currently considering a 24 month embargo for some of its titles. "They can do this and still say that they are fully compliant with the RCUK policy," the associations caution. "We have reliable information," the letter adds, "that other major publishers are also considering the introduction of lengthy embargoes. If embargoes were widely introduced then there would be little change in the public accessibility of research outputs despite the introduction of the RCUK policy."

The associations urge RCUK therefore to examine seriously "the possibility of tightening up these clauses in order to avoid the possibility that deposition of articles in open-access repositories will become even more difficult for authors and their institutions than it is at present."

Research Councils UK (a strategic partnership of the UK's eight research councils) published its proposed position in June, having consulted widely with key stakeholders, including universities, publishers and learned societies. RCUK then invited further comments on its proposals. The deadline for these responses ended on 31st August.

The proposal has attracted considerable controversy. In particular, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) wrote to RCUK warning that a policy of mandated self-archiving of research articles in freely accessible repositories, when combined with the ready retrievability of those articles through search engines (such as Google Scholar) and interoperability (facilitated by standards such as OAI-PMH), "will accelerate the move to a disastrous scenario".

In effect, the claim was that an RCUK mandate would cause libraries to cancel subscriptions, which in turn would lead to the financial failure of scholarly journals, and so to the collapse of the quality control and peer review process that publishers manage.

In response, a group of UK academics including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, wrote an open letter to RCUK, and to the UK science minister Lord Sainsbury, attacking the ALPSP letter. They cited the example of physics — where self-archiving has been carried out for years — and argued that learned societies "cannot identify any loss of subscriptions to their journals as a result of this critical mass of self-archived and readily retrievable physics articles".

Initially expected to be implemented at the beginning of October, the RCUK policy is now likely to be delayed until 1st January 2006.

Friday, September 02, 2005

WSIS working group comment on RCUK policy

The Working Group on Scientific Information for the World Summit on the Information Society has publicly released its comment on the draft RCUK policy.


From the evidences that have been brought forward in those comments, it appears clearly that RCUK proposed position on access to research outputs is not only in full agreement with the recommendations of the World Summit On the Information Society (WSIS), but also with the movement of the Berlin Declaration , the context of the Commission for Africa.

The RCUK proposed position is exactly in line with some of the recent recommendations of the UNESCO thematic meeting held recently in Saint-Petersburg.

SPARC | Comments to RCUK

Open Access Working Group Responds to Call for Comments

Research Councils United Kingdom
Draft Position Statement on Research Outputs

This memorandum presents the views of several leading U.S. organizations concerned with the wide, affordable, and effective dissemination of scientific and scholarly research results: the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Library Association, the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, the Medical Library Association, and SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition).

We commend the Research Councils’ decision to establish a policy designed to improve access to the results of publicly funded research, and in particular, applaud the four principles upon which this policy based. We appreciate the RCUK’s decision to actively seek comments from a wide range of stakeholders. Although our organizations are not located in the United Kingdom, we offer our views because the scholarly publishing process and journals markets are highly international – involving authors, subscribers, readers, and research funding from many nations. Additionally, there is substantial cooperation among stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic in seeking solutions. The views expressed herein are closely aligned with those of SPARC Europe (, a coalition of European libraries based at Oxford University in the U.K., which advocates changes in the scholarly publishing market to better serve the international research community ...

BMJ | Results of publicly funded research should be available to all, says web creator

Results of publicly funded research should be available to all, says web creator

Zosia Kmietowicz

A group of eight UK academics that includes Tim Berners-Lee, who created the world wide web, has called for all publicly funded research to be made freely available on the internet.

In an open letter to the Research Councils UK (RCUK) the group is highly critical of the Association of Learned and Professional Society, which represents non-profit academic publishers and which has opposed such moves to open access. The society claimed that a proposal by RCUK—a strategic partnership of the United Kingdom’s eight research councils—that all research papers resulting from its funding should be archived on the internet "will accelerate the move to a disastrous scenario." This scenario, the society said, would bring financial ruin to many journals as librarians cancel subscriptions and would lead to the collapse of quality controls and peer review processes...