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More Socialized Science

by Rudy M. Baum
May 16, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 20

This week's cover story is a comprehensive examination of the state of the "open access" movement that continues to roil scientific publishing (see page 40). Senior Editor Sophie Rovner has been covering scientific publishing for C&EN for several years, and her report on open access presents all of the conflicting sides of this contentious issue.

Open-access advocates want all of the scientific literature available to everybody for free. The movement started among elite East Coast and West Coast biologists and has now spread fairly widely among biologists, biochemists, and chemists working at the interface with biology in the U.S. and Europe.

As readers of this page are aware, I have almost no use at all for the open-access movement. Open access at its most extreme is a shell game, the unstated goal of which is to transfer responsibility for publishing and archiving the scientific literature from the private sector to the federal government.

Open access starts with the axiom that scientific information should be free. This axiom is taken by advocates as so obvious and so righteous that it needs no further explication. It is the raison d'être of the open- access movement.

Let me propose a parallel axiom: BMWs should be free. They're great cars, safe and fun to drive. Cost should not be a factor in determining whether every citizen has access to a BMW. I hereby proclaim the open access to BMWs movement. The federal government and BMW dealers should join forces to ensure that every U.S. citizen has a free BMW.

Absurd, yes? But scientific information—peer reviewed, edited, packaged, and archived as a journal—and BMWs are both commodities, and both cost a substantial amount of money to produce. There is no logical difference between the axioms and, if one is absurd, then so is the other.

Open-access advocates also argue that, because the public paid for most of the research through grants from federal and state agencies, the public should not have to pay to access the results of the research. This is the shell game. Conducting research and publishing the results of research are two separate activities that both involve costs. Open access shifts the costs of publishing research results from the users of scientific information—in most cases, other researchers, not the general public—to the researchers conducting the research in the form of page and submission charges. Most chemists thought the abolition of page charges was a good idea.

In other words, open-access advocates argue that the costs of publishing research should be included in the costs of conducting research. This argument has some pernicious side effects that open-access advocates ignore. It would impair the ability of less affluent researchers—particularly those from less developed countries—to publish their results. And it would give a free ride to some users of scientific information; for instance, the chemical industry. How's that? The chemical industry is a major user of the chemical literature but a relatively minor contributor to it, so costs now shouldered by industry in the form of subscriptions to journals would be shifted to the major research universities in the form of page charges.

Here's the essence of the shell game—open access doesn't make scientific information free to the public, it just shifts around the acknowledged costs of scientific publishing. Under an open-access model, the public may, in fact, pay more for supporting research and disseminating research results than it does now. For all of their posturing about the public, open-access advocates are motivated by a deep antipathy toward the private sector and the firm belief that the federal government, not the private sector, should control scientific publishing. They are, in fact, advocating socialized science. In the more extreme open-access scenarios, such as ones now being developed by the National Library of Medicine, this goal is explicit and the federal government itself becomes the publisher and archivist of the scientific and technical literature.

The ultimate irony of this debate is that, with the advent of the Internet, access to the scientific literature has never been more open. All you have to do is pay a fair price for it. Just like a BMW.


Thanks for reading.



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