Wednesday, March 28, 2012

RUP’s Mike Rossner: Doing what’s right

Scholarly publishing is going through some hectic times. At the beginning of the year it was engulfed in the controversy over the Research Works Act (RWA), which would have rolled back the Public Access Policy introduced by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2005, and forbidden other federal agencies from introducing similar policies.
Mike Rossner

Confronted by an outcry from the research community, publishers began to distance themselves from the act, or they dithered, and the saga ended in a big win for the Open Access (OA) movement.

Hot on the heels of the RWA comes the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA). This would achieve the very opposite of the RWA: It would strengthen the NIH Policy by reducing the embargo period before research papers must be made freely available online, from 12 months to six months; and it would require that all the major agencies of the federal government introduce the new strengthened policy.

Right now the FRPAA is still alive and kicking, but under attack from publishers, who have described it as “little more than an attempt at intellectual eminent domain, but without fair compensation to authors and publishers.”

As the war of words between OA advocates and publishers begins anew, one publisher stands out for taking an independent line — the executive director of Rockefeller University Press (RUP) Mike Rossner. In fact, this is not the first time that Rossner has disagreed with other publishers (e.g. see here, here and here), but it is always refreshing (not to say liberating) when one witnesses individuals standing out from the crowd.

True to form, Rossner has released a letter to librarians outlining his position in the current debate. Yesterday he forwarded the letter to me and invited me to share it, which I am happy to do. As I felt the letter invited a few questions I put those to Rossner first. The short Q&A can be read below the letter.

I am reminded of what Rossner told SPARC in 2009, when he was honoured as a SPARC Innovator: “I don’t see myself as going against the grain, I see myself as doing what’s right.”

What is undeniable is that if all scholarly publishers approached the world in the way that Mike Rossner does, a great many more research papers would be freely accessible on the Web today!

Dear Librarian,

I am writing to clarify the position of The Rockefeller University Press (RUP) on various legislative efforts regarding public access to publications resulting from federally funded research. RUP is a member of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), who have both recently provided position statements on this issue. However, RUP does not agree with those statements.

RUP is a subscription-based publisher that publishes three biomedical research journals: The Journal of Cell Biology, The Journal of Experimental Medicine, and The Journal of General Physiology. We have released our back content to the public since 2001 – long before any federal mandates existed – because we believe we have an obligation to give something back to the public that funds the research we publish.

The AAP supported the now-defunct Research Works Act. RUP strongly opposed that act.

Both the AAP and AAUP have opposed the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which has been re-introduced into both the House and Senate. Although numerous non-profit publishers signed the AAP letter, the RUP does not stand with those publishers. RUP supports FRPAA in principle.  We know from the NIH public access policy that mandated access to the results of federally-funded research is necessary to get certain publishers to release this content to the public, and we support legislation to extend the NIH policy to other large federal funding agencies.

The AAP and AAUP use a one-size-does-not-fit-all argument to oppose FRPAA because the drafted legislation calls for all large federal agencies to mandate public access six months after publication. Although it can be argued that a six-month embargo period may not be suitable for all disciplines covered by FRPAA, this is not grounds to oppose the legislation altogether. It should be supported in principle and could be modified during Congressional review to provide the flexibility for each agency to choose its own embargo period.

The continuing rhetoric from the AAP and AAUP about having ongoing "conversations" about access to the results of publicly funded research is outdated. There is legislation on the table that will help to make public access a reality now.

Yours sincerely,

Mike Rossner
Executive Director

These comments are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Rockefeller University.

RP:  I note that what you have sent me is a letter addressed to librarians. Can you say what your message is to RUP authors and readers?

MR: The note was addressed to librarians because it was sent to our list of institutional site managers. Our message is the same to RUP authors and readers.

RP:  You perhaps saw Stevan Harnad’s response to your letter? I know the term “public access” is widely used in the US, but has Stevan got a point? While members of the public clearly have an interest in ensuring that their tax dollars are spent effectively, is not the benefit of open access that it enables researchers to access each other’s papers, not that it allows the public to read them? Do you think these two issues are sometimes conflated?

MR: Stevan distinguished researcher access from public access. Since we release all of our back content to the public, the two are functionally equivalent from our perspective.

RP:  Would it be fair to conclude you feel that both the AAP and AAUP have lost sight of the big picture so far as scholarly communication is concerned, and that they can no longer see the wood for the trees when it comes to the issue of OA?

MR: I cannot speak to the perspectives of those organizations. I imagine that they believe their positions represent the opinions of the majority of their members, although I have not seen any polling data to this effect.

RP:  Given the apparent gulf that has opened up between RUP and both the AAP and AAUP, I am wondering what value there is in RUP remaining a member. Why does RUP not resign from these two organisations?

MR: I believe that there is value in presenting a dissenting opinion from within an organization. Being a member gives me a voice over communications networks to which I would otherwise not have access.

RP:  You say that RUP supports the FRPAA “in principle”. Can you say more about the reservations RUP has about the bill, which perhaps encompass more than the embargo period alone?

MR: My reservations encompass only the uniform embargo period. I strongly support the principle of mandated public access.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Open Access, brick by brick

Last month Elsevier withdrew its support for the controversial Research Works Act (RWA). Had it become law, the RWA would have rolled back the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy requiring that funded researchers make their papers freely available on the Web within 12 months of publication. It would also have outlawed other US federal agencies from introducing similar policies. As such, the bill was a direct assault on Green Open Access. But while Elsevier’s retreat was a big win for supporters of Open Access (OA), OA will continue to be a brick-by-brick process — as evidenced by recent events in Australia.

In stepping away from the RWA, Elsevier acknowledged that it had made a strategic mistake. It clearly also made a serious PR gaffe. Whether the company has done lasting damage to its relationship with the research community remains uncertain, but the fact that researchers are continuing to sign up to the boycott Elsevier web site — created in protest at the publisher’s support for the bill — must clearly be a cause for concern.

What the RWA fiasco underlines is that while publishers are increasingly willing to embrace Gold OA (OA publishing), their antipathy towards Green OA (self-archiving) is growing, particularly where it is mandatory.

For that reason, Elsevier’s decision should be viewed as a political act alone, not a change of heart. Indeed, in announcing its withdrawal the publisher stressed that it remains firmly opposed to OA mandates.

Moreover, while OA advocates maintain that most publishers are now comfortable with the NIH policy this is surely only wish fulfilment. A week after the RWA died, after all, 81 publishers signed a letter opposing the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA).

Introduced into both the US Senate and the House of Representatives on 9th February, far from outlawing the NIH policy, the FRPAA would propagate it — to around a dozen other US federal agencies. It would also reduce the embargo period from 12 months to six. As such, the bill would be a huge fillip for Green OA — although with the US elections approaching it seems highly unlikely to succeed, in the near future at least.

In short, the battle for OA goes on, but looks set to be fought primarily over Green OA henceforward.

Down under

Recent events on the other side of the globe would appear to confirm this. They also demonstrate that while the OA movement was victorious in the battle over the RWA, the war itself is far from over.

In a development generally under-reported outside Australia (pushed aside by the hubbub over the RWA perhaps), on 21st February the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced that it plans to introduce an NIH-style mandate — effective July 1st.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Scholarly Publishing: Where is Plan B?

To the intense joy of Open Access (OA) advocates, Elsevier announced Monday that it has withdrawn its support for the controversial US Research Works Act (RWA). Shortly afterwards, it was reported that the two sponsors of the bill — Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) — would not be “taking legislative action” on the RWA. In short, the bill is now dead on its feet.

One person who took particular note of the news was Claudio Aspesi, a senior research analyst at the sell-side research firm Sanford Bernstein. Aspesi tracks Elsevier for investors, so on Tuesday he published a new report on the company. While welcoming Elsevier's decision, Aspesi concluded, “Consensus is still treating Elsevier’s problems as cyclical, in spite of the rising evidence the issues are deeper”. So when I received a copy of the report I took it as a sign that it was time to re-interview Aspesi. The interview follows my own thoughts on the current situation below.
Claudio Aspesi

The RWA was introduced into the House of Representatives at the end of last year. Had it become law, the bill would have reversed the 2005 National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy requiring that taxpayer-funded research is made freely accessible online within 12 months of publication. It would also have prevented other federal agencies from imposing similar requirements on their funded researchers.

In short, the RWA would have been a serious setback for the OA movement. But the danger has been averted.

Sadly for Elsevier, however, its flirtation with the RWA appears to have wreaked havoc on its relationship with the research community. The blogosphere has been alive with criticism of the publisher, several petitions were launched to stop the bill and, most damagingly, in January a blog post by highly regarded Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers sparked a boycott of the company, with thousands of researchers pledging that henceforth they will not publish in, or referee and/or perform editorial services for any Elsevier journals.

It is important to note, however, that this anger was not just over Elsevier’s support for the RWA. It was soon apparent that researchers have a number of historic grievances against the company, grievances that were reawakened by its support for the bill.

The boycott site (Cost of Knowledge) lists a number of these grievances, including the complaint that Elsevier charges “exorbitantly high prices” and that it has used the Big Deal (aka journal bundling) as a way of forcing librarians to “agree to buy very large ‘bundles’” of journals, including “many journals that those libraries do not actually want.”

As such, the danger is that having opened Pandora’s Box, Elsevier may not be able to close it again, and its retreat from the RWA may fail to stem the tide of researchers joining the boycott. At the time of writing, the number who had pledged to shun the publisher had grown to 7,690, and continues to grow by the hour.

Given the PR crisis it sparked, and the embarrassing climb-down that Elsevier has had to make, one is bound to wonder why the publisher ever supported the RWA in the first place.

Ask Elsevier why and it will tell you that self-archiving mandates like the NIH policy represent an unfair threat to its business — by depriving it of vital subscription revenue it needs to fund the publishing of research papers. It also claims that the NIH policy amounts to unwarranted government interference in the market.

But is it true that self-archiving mandates inevitably cause libraries to cancel subscriptions, as Elsevier claims? This is far from self-evident.