Research Journals Make It As Difficult As Possible To Openly Publish Gov't Funded Research

from the bad-news-for-everyone dept

I recently got into a conversation with an academic, who had to jump through some ridiculous hoops to get a paper published. Apparently, part of the experiment had been published elsewhere, and even though it was in a somewhat different context, a journal that was interested in publishing a different paper wouldn’t touch it because an editor there was afraid of the copyright issues from the first publisher. So, unless the professor was willing to do an entirely new experiment to create new (the same) results, it wouldn’t publish. This, of course, seems to go against everything that academia should be about: which is the open sharing of research results and ideas to further the course of knowledge. But, of course, thanks to copyright, that’s rarely what happens.

Witness this bizarre story, relayed by William Patry, about the American Psychological Association’s assault on a Congressional requirement that any NIH-funded research get published openly a year after its published in a journal. Let’s be entirely clear here: we’re talking about publicly (tax-payer) funded research that gets published in a journal. The journal does not pay for the research at all. The research is paid for by the NIH. Much of the salaries of the academics involved are often paid for by public institutions as well. On top of that, the journals do not reimburse the academic for publishing the research. The journals also do not reimburse the “peers” who peer review the research. In other words, these journals contribute very little to the publication, and get tremendous benefits for free (often at the expense of taxpayers). And, then, of course, the journals claim copyright over the papers and charge insane fees to subscribe to the journals that publish them.

Recently, Congress realized this was a problem, and ordered that all NIH-funded research (and that’s hardly peanuts: the NIH funds nearly $30 billion in research per year) be published online in the PubMed Central archive, a year after publication in a journal. This still granted the journals plenty of time to get a return on whatever little “investment” they put into the publication. Most university libraries would still pay the exorbitant fees for the journal, but this tax-payer funded research would then be available to others after one year for free.

The American Psychological Association had other ideas, however. While it’s not disobeying the rule, it is taking a rather draconian approach to it. It’s decided that it will charge the institution the academic comes from $2,500 for “depositing” the paper with PubMed. It will not allow the researchers to submit the paper themselves (and avoid the fee). It also will not let the researcher submit the paper to any other open research publication and (of course) will not let the author retain the copyright on the publications. While it appears that the APA is rethinking some of this policy thanks to some of the outcry, it shows yet another old school academic journal clinging to not just an outdated business model, but one that actively stifles academic sharing of research and cross-pollination of ideas.

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Comments on “Research Journals Make It As Difficult As Possible To Openly Publish Gov't Funded Research”

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23 Comments
Geoff says:

Please stop the lies

To be frank, it doesn’t work the way you suggest it. Journals barely break even. The cost of subscriptions barely cover the cost of printing, editing, distributing, and preservation. Most also give to public outreach, public scientific education, grants to young students, and grants to scientists in impoverished nations. Additionally, many publish standards, public records, and books at a loss (that only a handful of people and universities will buy).

Techdirt often talks about value added; the value of these organizations to the scientists themselves is rarely discussed. Journal meetings are where scientists exchange ideas, make friends and collaborators, find postdocs, transition ideas to industry, meet sponsors, and get a job.

Think carefully to yourself – when, if ever, has the government done something more cost-effectively than a business; especially, a business where a lot of the labor is a labor of love that is gifted for free from some of the world’s smartest people? Yes, tax dollars ultimately fund the research but stop passing on the myth that fat cat publishers are raking in the dough on Uncle Sam’s tab. It is just a lie.

Jim (user link) says:

Re: Please stop the lies

Usually when people get all defensive like you just did – they feel guilty about something.

Did Mike say that the journals are making tons of money? No. He said that they charge “exorbitant fees”. They may very well be a value added service, but since they have little part in creating content, why should they be the gate keepers of federally funded research? Mike isn’t arguing that the government should be the gatekeeper, but rather that there should be no limitations to access (no gatekeepers).

Their content is created at great expense to the tax payer, while the average tax payer has no way to access it. Thats like having federally funded research that the government allows Chevy to patent.

If “these organizations” are so valuable, then they should be able stand on their own without hijacking the public’s data.

MLS (profile) says:

If a researcher (or his/her employer) is stupid enough to fall for the line “we must have the copyright assigned to us”, then I do not have much sympathy.

It is commonplace that many (perhaps even most) STM professional journals “mandate” copyright assignment as a condition of accepting an article for publication. Most researchers and their employers follow meekly. However, were they to consult with an attorney for even a few minutes they would quickly learn that publication can easily take place with a nicely worded letter to the journal publisher stating “pound sand…we keep the copyright and you get a license.” As yet I have never seen any publisher fail to capitulate, take a license, and publish the paper.

Stanley says:

It ain't that simple

1. The better academic journals usually aren’t supported by advertising (which would raise all kinds of potential for conflict of interest), and proper review of papers needs highly skilled people – who have to be paid somehow. Journal publishing is generally a money-losing proposition. And a lot of these high fees to authors are routinely waived.

2. A major unspoken reason for the government requirement was not availability (journals are pretty generally available – most university libraries don’t check id if you go in to browse), but the fact that people weren’t voluntarily depositing their documents. This had a lot to do with the complexity of the deposition process – making it a legal requirement was easier (for the agency) than improving the process. Mind, $2500 is more than it should cost to have someone else do it for you, but…

the results of publicly funded research? (profile) says:

Does a researcher 'own'

Perhaps I am just naive about publicly funded research but doesn’t the funding authority typically retain the rights to all research/results from projects they fund? If so, I would think the researcher doesn’t really have the right to assign copyright to another party without permission of the funding authority. Publishers may attempt to assert copyright on public research they publish but I have to believe that position could readily be challenged in court.

MLS (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Does a researcher 'own'

But for a very few unique (miniscule, actually) situations, my answer is a resounding “yes”.

There seems to be a mindset among those who deal with federal agencies that because the government “paid for it”, then certainly the government “owns it”. This mindset is not limited to scientists and business executives. Most lawyers who deal with federal procurements share the same mindset, which is indeed unfortunate because it invariably means that the legal advice they give is plainly wrong.

It is useful to note that the genesis for our patent and copyright laws, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution, is structured to accord patents and copyrights to inventors and authors. It is not structured to grant in the first instance such rights to those “who paid for it”.

Jim (user link) says:

Re: It's the 21 century people! Use the internet!

You’re right. Let’s just use the internet. Let’s see… I’m just going to look for something in my field and try to access it. Here’s something interesting – Hooray JSTOR! Wait a minute…

“You are not currently authorized to access this article. This article is available for purchase from the publisher for $36.00 USD.”

That’s fricken wonderful.

Geoff says:

The real world doesn't work like that

I don’t find the argument, “Their content is created at great expense to the tax payer, while the average tax payer has no way to access it” to be very compelling. We also paid for F-15 fighter planes yet I can’t access them either. However, you have access to the benefit of their protection. In a similar way, you indirectly access scientific research.

Government funded research is made available to the American public all the time in the form of innovation and innovators. Following a Techdirt line of reasoning you need to look at a greater scope of the picture. Most European nations directly hand grants to their corporations to do research. In essence they subsidize the RnD of major corporations. It is a horrible system that leads to tariffs (and rightfully so) from other countries who can’t compete with their products fairly (e.g. commercial airplanes). In America, the government funds research institutions directly. Their research is VASTLY more open than company’s, this system leads to faster innovation, promotes open discussion/rebuttal of good/bad work, and it trains future researchers. Yes, these researchers (mostly their institutions, actually) get patents on their publicly funded work, true. But scientists partner with companies (Intel) or start their own (Qualcom). The American citizen benefits from an an incredible pace of innovation and a good economy (more jobs). The people are able to purchase technology that no single company could ever afford to RnD (note downfall of Bell labs). Our economy and companies produce the most cutting edge technology in the world thank to research centers producing both amazing discoveries and PhDs for our labor pool.

Someone who knows says:

Profit is in the eye of the beholder

What is the difference between making a profit and reporting a loss but paying yourself a very high salary? “Non-profits” play this game too. “We don’t make any money!” — but the CEO gets paid $7 million a year. Just because all of the profit is sucked out in salaries doesn’t mean you don’t make money, it just means that it gets diverted elsewhere. You’re starting to see this with a lot of professional associations now too. It’s time to publish the salary lists at these journals and associations. Then we can talk about your profitability…

sandoz76 says:

Science journals are a rip-off

“To be frank, it doesn’t work the way you suggest it. Journals barely break even. The cost of subscriptions barely cover the cost of printing, editing, distributing, and preservation. Most also give to public outreach, public scientific education, grants to young students, and grants to scientists in impoverished nations.”

while you are being frank, try being truthful. Journals are barely breaking even? Are retarded chickens writing their business models? Scientific journals have such exorbitant library fees that all but a few top-tier university libraries can carry them. That is major stupidity on their part. What are these grants they are giving to young students, exactly? Maybe they can put those on hold while they get their crap together and stop charging libraries $150,000/ a year to carry their publication.

Also, “most” do not publish standards. A very small few do. With all the scientific journals, there are a few major standards they promote as the only standards their journals will use. If they all stopped trying to own and promote their own standards, they can save themselves this expense. If they want to republish every year because they move a period or paren, that is their problem.

And also, lets be clear, peer reviewers are not reimbursed. It is considered to be service to the scholarly community, a requirement of a tenure-track or tenured scholar. They get paid plenty in the smugness they get by acting like their own crappy research is any better than what they are currently reading.

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