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.


Stevan Harnad said...


Practically speaking, public access (i.e., free online access to research, for everyone) includes researcher access (free online access to research for researchers).

Moreover, free online access to research, for everyone, includes both public access and researcher access.

So what difference does it make what you call it?

The answer is subtle, but important:

The goal of providing "public access to publicly funded research" has a great deal of appeal (rightly) to both tax-paying voters and to politicians.

So promoting open access as "public access" is a very powerful and effective way to motivate and promote the adoption of open access self-archiving mandates by public research funders such as NIH and the many other federal funders in the US that would be covered by the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA).

That's fine for publicly funded research.

But not all research -- nor even most research -- is publicly funded.

All research worldwide, however, whether funded or unfunded, originates from institutions: The universal providers of research are the world's universities and research institutes.

To motivate institutions to adopt open access self-archiving mandates for all of their research output requires giving them and their researchers a credible, valid reason for doing so.

And for institutions and their researchers, "public access to publicly funded research" is not a credible, valid reason for providing open access to their research output:

Institutions and their researchers know full well that apart from a few scientific and scholarly research areas (notably, health-related research), most of their research output is of no interest to the public (and often inaccessible technically, even if accessible electronically).

Institutions and their researchers need a credible and valid reason for providing open access to their research output.

And that credible and valid reason is so as to provided access for all of the intended users of their research -- researchers themselves -- rather than just those who are at an institution that can afford to subscribe to the journal in which it was published.

Subtle, but important.

It has become obvious that the >75% of researchers who have not been providing open access to their research for over two decades now, despite the fact that the Web has made it both possible and easy for them to do so will not do so until and unless it is mandated. That's why mandates matter.

The rationale for the mandate, however, has to be credible and valid for all research and all researchers. "Public access to publicly funded research" is not.

But "maximize researcher access to maximize research uptake and impact" is.

And it has the added virtue of not only maximizing research usage, applications and progress -- to the benefit of the public -- but public access to publicly funded research also comes with the territory, as an added benefit.

So Mike Rossner is quite right that the two are functionally equivalent.

It is just that they are not strategically equivalent -- if the objective is to convince institutions and their researchers that it is in their interest to mandate and provide open access.

Mike Taylor said...

Mike, this is fantastic. Many thanks for not just supporting open access, but doing it publicly. I hope that your example will lead others to do the same -- I am sure you can't be the only publisher who sees this!