February 4, 2007

Open Access or Peer-Review?

By: Joanne McNeil

Last spring, Senate busybody Joseph Lieberman and Sen. John Cornyn introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006. Most of us instinctively cringe over any suggestions Sen. Lieberman makes about information and copyright laws, but this proposal seemed almost libertarian in its goals. Essentially, FRPAA requires major US government agencies to make their non-classified manuscripts free on the Internet within six months.

Research chief executives called it “critical that this new research be readily available to physicians, researchers, and members of the public, including those who are unaffiliated with or working in locations remote from libraries that subscribe to increasingly expensive journals and databases developed from federally funded research,” in a letter to Sen. Susan M. Collins, chair of the committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, sent jointly by the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, the American Association of Law Libraries, the Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries, the Medical Library Association, the Special Libraries Association, and SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition). They pointed to the low activity of voluntary disclosure, for example at the NIH, which has only 4% compliance with its voluntary policy.

FRAA encourages the dissemination of information and streamlining of research. Opening access could eliminate barriers to obtaining research, especially the high costs — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars — of research publications.

At first glance, the proposal seems like simple checks and balances. Taxpayers, as underwriters of the tens of billions of dollars in government research, should demand public accountability from these organizations. Yet, FRAA threatens to further muddy the public and private funding of science research. Libraries could likely cancel subscriptions to independently funded science journals, if the same research becomes available in six months. One is tempted to dismiss privately published science journals as technology-outdated relics. But these are specialized, written for and by the best in their field. If a specialist cannot afford a journal’s subscription cost and cannot wait six months for research news, he is out of luck.

Although the people behind Federal Research Public Access Act have good intentions, the market is already doing its part to disseminate information as quickly and widely as possible. Seed magazine notes that many science publications like NatureSciencePNASJAMA and The New England Journal of Medicine already grant free access to older articles. It goes to show how important timeliness is to the science research industry. Six months is enough time to render some technology advancements obsolete.

Meanwhile, the PloS ONE, a Slashdot-style science publication, and JoVE, (The Journal of Visualized Experiments) a how-to video site, are picking up steam due to their free content. No one is suggesting that a Netflix-style user rating of science articles will replace JAMA, but for some researchers, it offers a compelling alternative to traditional peer review.

Scientists almost always peer review for free. Writers of papers often bear the costs of publishing; paying high submission fees to the journals. For years science researchers have critiqued this method; only now are alternatives viable and respectable.

There’s room for both free web-based publications and traditional science journals. The SRARC website FAQ points out that nearly all physics journal articles are available in the arXiv.org open access website, and yet, subscription-based publications continue to thrive.

“Private-sector nonprofit and commercial publishers serve researchers and scientists by managing and funding the peer-review process,” the Association of American Publishers said in a statement. “There are proposals under consideration that would mandate more government involvement and put this system at risk … Legislation that would undermine the quality, sustainability, and independence of science would have consequences on all those who rely on sound science.” But a journal’s reputation should withstand any competition from the open-access movement.

While it’s not clear that the FRAA will remedy the situation, current alternatives to the current publishing model seem like peer-review in process. Widespread open access to science research enables greater multidisciplinary crossover research, and assists non-Ivory tower researchers. Let’s let the scientists decide how they want their research published.

Joanne McNeil is Brainwash‘s Science and Tech Editor. Her website is joannemcneil.com.

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