The Intellectually Dishonest Claims Of Those Fighting Against Open Access To Federally Funded Research

from the shameful dept

We've written a few times about the ongoing fight over whether or not federally funded research should be somewhat accessible to the public. This kicked off a few years back when the NIH, which funds a tremendous amount of research, required that any research that was funded by them had to be published in PubMed, its free and open database of such research one year after it was published in a journal. Scientific journals, as you probably know, are basically a huge scam. Unlike most publications, the journals don't pay the people who provide all the material in those journals. Instead, the researchers pay the journals to publish their research. Not only that, but in exchange for paying the journal, the researchers also have to hand over their copyright on the research. This gets really ridiculous at times, as professors I've spoken with have needed to totally redo their own experiments because some journal "owned" their research, and they couldn't reuse any of the data.

On top of that, these journals don't pay people to do peer review. Other researchers in the field are expected to do the peer review for free. Oh, and then did we mention that these journals charge ridiculous sums (thousands upon thousands of dollars) for subscriptions, which many university libraries feel compelled to pay? And that much of the research is paid for by your tax dollars anyway?

So the journals have been complaining about this attempt to actually have federally funded research available to the public who paid for it, where it can actually be much more useful. The American Psychological Association has been the worst of the bunch in dealing with this, trying to (on top of everything else) charge institutions $2,500 to "deposit" papers with PubMed as it's required to do (as if researchers couldn't just upload the paper themselves). On top of that, various publishers lobbied hard for a law to end the requirement to publish such federally funded works. Thankfully, it hasn't passed. Instead, the Obama administration has supported extending the policy beyond the NIH to make all federally funded research publicly accessible after a year.

As this is being debated, it's really rather stunning the level of intellectual dishonesty being pushed by those who want to lock up federally funded research. Glyn Moody points us to the astoundingly ridiculous claim from Steven Breckler of the American Psychological Association, that requiring free access to federally funded research one year after it's published would violate the administrations pledge for transparent government. Yes, read that again. With a straight face, this guy is claiming that a requirement for making federally funded research publicly accessible will violate a pledge for more transparency in government. This is shockingly dishonest.

If you want to understand the specious reasoning, it's as follows: the requirement for transparency from the government says that there are limits on that transparency, and those limits include "national security, privacy or other genuinely compelling interests." And, according to Breckler, one of those other "genuinely compelling interests" is his job. Well, that's not quite the way he put it. But, basically, he claims that if required to publish content after a year, there would be fewer peer reviewed journals. But he presents no evidence to support that whatsoever. In fact, what the research actually shows is that the journals that have chosen to be open are actually doing quite well when it comes to actually having their research being used for scientific advancement. They're cited much more frequently and used much more often in moving research forward. In other words, if the real goal is to promote scientific advancement, opening up federally funded research makes a tremendous amount of sense, totally contrary to Breckler's and the American Psychological Association's claims.

If you're a member of the APA, you should frankly be disgusted with this display of intellectual dishonesty.

And it gets worse. Moody also points us to an attempt by Patrick Ross of the Copyright Alliance to side with the APA as well. Ross, amusingly, always claims he's fighting the fight for "content creators." And yet, when you look at nearly everything that he and the Copyright Alliance seems to work on, it's always working with middlemen who regularly screw over the actual content creators. That's the case here as well. These journals are getting researchers to pay them to take away their copyrights. Defending them and pretending that's defending content creators is sickening.

But that's exactly what Ross does, where he claims that the rule would effectively limit copyright to 12 months. That, of course, is not true at all. But, more importantly, it's worth pointing out, again, that this is federally funded research. US copyright law already says that anything produced by the federal gov't should not get a copyright, and it's silly that this does not extend to research funded by the government as well. Beyond that, Ross' attempt to toe the APA's line is so blatantly misleading, it's amazing anyone takes anything Ross or the APA has to say seriously. In his writeup, Ross quotes new APA research (so that's not biased at all) that claims that only 15% of access to journal articles happen in the first year.

Ross then takes this to conclude that requiring open access after year one is asking a publishers to "forfeit 85% of their economic return." Except that's simply not true at all. Not even close to true. This assumes that all journal revenue is on a pay-for-access basis. But that's not the case at all. First of all, journals make money from the fees researchers and professors pay to submit their articles. Second, the vast majority of their income comes from subscriptions from libraries. Most libraries will continue to pay for subscriptions for important journals, because it'll still be worth having access earlier. The fact that people access the data later doesn't change the economic model very much, and certainly not by 85% as Ross claims.

The whole thing, frankly, is ridiculous. Academic journals are immensely profitable operations, in part because they not only get free labor from peer reviewers, but they also get people to pay them to give them their content. No other publishing business in the world has it so good and so easy. And much of this rides on the back of the American taxpayer. The system, as it stands, is effectively a way to transfer taxpayer dollars to private publishers, and lock up federally funded research in the process. It helps no one other than the publishers. It doesn't help the researchers, who have much more difficulty sharing and building on the research of others. It doesn't help science, which is held back by having such research locked up. And it certainly doesn't help the public or the government who foots the bill.

On top of all that, there's increasing evidence that the traditional peer review journal system doesn't even work very well. More and more frequently, we're hearing of junk science making it through the peer review process. Simply having two people review a work and signing off on it is not a real peer review. A more open system, where lots of experts get to look at the information and weigh in on it is significantly more effective and efficient.

What's amazing is that this is all so painfully obvious to anyone who looks at this stuff, that those who are still trying to defend this ridiculous taking of taxpayer money in an effort to lock up federally funded research for profit are forced to make such laughably intellectually dishonest claims to try to keep such a scam going. It's really quite shameful, but does suggest the lengths to which some people will go to keep cash flowing in their direction.
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Filed Under: copyright, federally funded research, journals, open access, research
Companies: american psychological association

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  1. icon
    Richard (profile), 3 Aug 2010 @ 3:13pm

    Re: scam

    Although you have to wonder why the NIH can't just publish the stuff they fund themselves and work around all the associations and journals.
    Eventually it will go that way. The problem is that somehow we have to dismantle the old "pecking order" of journal status from the old physical world.

    I'm involved in academic conference organisation. We charge a registration fee for papers in the conference (but that pays for the right to attend, including refreshments and get a physical CD of the proceedings.)

    Reviewing is done for free by the technical programme committee.

    We used to do the whole thing ourselves and put the proceedings openly on the web for free. We used to get about 30 papers submitted each year. Now we have the IEEE publish our proceedings on their website (which has a paywall). We get 100-150 papers each year now! (And it's easier to get people to be reviewers.)
    The reason is of course the status conferred by the IEEE which helps with all the various research quality assessments that governments make.

    The problem can only be fixed by governments changing the rules on those quality exercises - but there is a lot of inertia and it is difficult to get these things to stick.

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