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Event report: Congressional hearing on Public Access and Scholarly Publication Interests

Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Hearing
This hearing took place at the Rayburn House Office Building on March 29, 2012.

Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) initiated the hearing with some statistics about publishers and academic journals. There are currently more than 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, produced by over 2,000 publishers. Each year, greater than 1.5 million articles are published by these journals, bringing in around $8-10 billion in revenues from subscribers. These revenues fund 100,000 jobs worldwide, and 30,000 jobs in the United States alone. With these numbers, Rep. Broun wanted to identify the large numbers of stakeholders in the issue of public access to journals. Broun also mentioned some of the questions that this issue raises, including whether or not public access has influenced the quality of research. Broun noted that one thing is clear: “Any effort to fundamentally change the way in which federal research is reviewed, vetted, transmitted, communicated, should benefit from the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s input,” as the committee is uniquely qualified to handle this issue, as evident by its encounters with the issue in the past.

Mr. Paul Tonko (D-NY) provided the opening statements for the hearing, including some of the solutions that have been presented in recent years. Further management of the peer-review process will increase the quality of research. The National Institutes of Health instituted a policy with its PubMed research database that makes articles free one year after their publication. Rep. Tonko also noted that many universities have established their own libraries for open public access, while some researchers are moving toward author-paid publication. The main goal, Tonko emphasized, was that high-quality research be widely-published and disseminated.

Dr. H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the American Institute of Physics, was the first witness to provide his testimony, and acknowledged that financial concerns “lie at the heart of this issue.” In the sphere of scholarly publishing, “freely available” does not necessarily equal “free of cost.” At the American Institute of Physics (AIP), each article costs about $2,000 to produce, because of the services that promote the article’s quality. Dr. Dylla recognized that many have identified two approaches: mandated open access and a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach with a definite time at which open access will be required. Dylla has found that mandated open access does not take into account the rich diversity in scientific research and in scientific publishing. This approach could also jeopardize more than 30,000 jobs in the U.S., as Broun noted. On the other side, a blanket approach that imposes open access after a specified period of time will hinder a publisher’s ability to ensure quality.

Mr. Elliot Maxwell, Project Director for the Digital Connections Council, Committee on Economic Development, opened his testimony citing his report entitled: “Future of Public Access to Taxpayer-Funded Research.” Maxwell pointed out that not all publishers are the same; open-access publishers differ from proprietary publishers. He emphasized that all parties agree about the importance of access. Maxwell believed that the NIH’s policy has increased access, and with increased access comes a number of outcomes: Accelerated scientific research and broadened blending of knowledge, an increased number of people with access, an improved range, quality, and variation of experiments, and a larger number of different perspectives, which lead to more solutions. Like Dylla, Maxwell acknowledged that there are great differences amongst various disciplines, and concluded with the opinion that we should “dial back” from an all access approach.

Dr. Crispin Taylor, Executive Director of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), as well as a member of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), spoke more extensively about his organizations’ experiences with public access policies. ASPB journals are dependent on subscriptions, and even with a competitive subscription cost, ASPB is still trying to maintain a customer base. The ASPB’s usage data for their database has shown that more than half of the article downloads take place after the first six months of their publication. From this, Dr. Taylor has concluded that articles are not valuable to users until after these first 6 months. In informal talks with ASPB librarians, Dr. Taylor learned that these individuals have considered cancelling their subscriptions and waiting the 6 months for the articles to become free to the public. Taylor expressed a hope for greater progress not separately, but rather as a community of stakeholders.

Mr. Stuart Shieber, Director of Office for Scholarly Communications and Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, spoke of several advantages to open access. Open access eliminates barriers to reading scholarly literature and expands access to a number of areas, to universities, businesses, and to the public. Open access also makes convenient the innovative reuse of articles through computer analysis of the complete body of research results. Next, Shieber defined open access as an “intrinsic public good,” citing Thomas Jefferson: “The most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people.” Lastly, Shieber foresees open access having positive impacts on the U.S. economy. The 7% increase each year in subscription costs has been a turn-off for potential subscribers.

Mr. Scott Plutchak, Director of Lister Hill Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, considered context to be the true value of peer-reviewed literature. Research becomes invaluable when it is “connected to the work that comes before it and provides a foundation for what can be built upon it.” Plutchak discussed his belief that past debates on this issue have been injudicious and have lacked a real collaboration between stakeholders. He stated that because of its focus on open access to individual articles, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPA) has fallen short of what needs to be achieved in this matter. Plutchak discussed how the Report from the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable “lays out the issues that need to be balanced.” First, there must be a focus on providing access to the version of record. FRPA settles for access to the author’s final manuscript version, but in scientific communication, the public needs access to a version that is updated with necessary corrections, etc. to ensure that context is preserved. Second, interoperability standards are necessary. Data mining of research reports combines results to provide accurate summaries across a wide range of experiments. Data mining by humans is very accurate, but also expensive and time-consuming. Third, Plutchak asked for a focus on digital preservation, as currently, only a small percentage of articles on online journals have been preserved. Researchers and publishers must consider the need for articles to be preserved for decades and centuries to come. Last, Plutchak agreed with other witnesses that different disciplines have different practices and needs. The embargo may be longer than necessary in some disciplines, and too short to be practical in other disciplines.

The questions asked by the committee reemphasized the witnesses’ opposition for a one-size-fits-all policy. Dr. Dylla has found that author-paid publishing only works for well-funded fields, such as medicine, while areas like the social sciences would find such a policy less feasible. Taylor expressed the fact that ASPB formed their 12 months after publication policy on their own, so mandates are unnecessary, as other organizations could do the same. Rep. Tonko asked the witnesses why peer review is important, and Dr. Taylor provided several reasons in his answer. Peer reviewers can assess the validity of conclusions a researcher is drawing, and evaluate the novelty and impact of the research. Peer review also provides a ranking system in the scientific community’s assessment of the impact of research. The hearing concluded with the witnesses’ and the committee’s recognition that this issue will not see an easy solution.

A full webcast of the hearing can be found here:

Jaclyn Escudero
SPSSI Spring Intern

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin