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Open access

September 18, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 38

The editorial "Take a Stand" urges ACS members to write our senators, urging them to oppose S. 2695, which mandates free and open access within six months to federally funded research publications (C&EN, June 5, page 3). I am writing to express my disapproval of the editorial, which I believe is overly defensive and protective of the status quo.

Your primary objection to free access is that publishers incur costs during the review process to maintain staff and software to enable Web submission, which you claim leads to faster publication. Correct me if I am wrong, but my impression of the review process is that it goes something like this: A manuscript is transmitted to (usually) a professor, who then, when he or she gets around to it, generally distributes it to a graduate student or postdoc who actually does the reading-between research, teaching, and course work requirements. The paper is then returned to the professor, who "tidies it up" and returns it to the publisher.

It would seem to matter little whether it is transmitted electronically, by overnight express, or by mail, since the rate-limiting step is the actual reading of the manuscript. The time involved in review is implicitly covered by the professor's salary and the student or postdoc stipend, the source of which is generally government grants. While it is true that actual costs are incurred to publish, these too are often covered by grant-supported page charges or, alternatively, through advertising revenue, as per most newspapers and magazines. Such being the case, I fail to see why free public access to government research is not feasible. After all, all U.S. Patent & Trademark Office patent information is freely available to the public.

Brian G. Demczyk
West Newton, Pa.

The editorial concerning S. 2695 was touching, but it missed several important points. Although the legislation may be misguided, it is born out of the academic publishing industry's failure to address one overarching question: What is the industry doing to increase access? Currently, the industry is using three factors to reduce access.

First, current pricing levels are hampering smaller institutions and even some large ones. As a postdoc in Amsterdam and in Münster, Germany, neither university offered the digital resources that any University of California campus offers. Hence, the status quo imposes a limit on institutions that lack large funds. Why should researchers at smaller institutions not have equal access? Is Occidental College less deserving than UCLA? Why should we all not have equal access to research that we funded with our tax dollars? Is the academic publishing industry pursuing a pricing plan that increases and facilitates access? Not many researchers would answer in the affirmative.

Second, the system has become financially inefficient. The vast majority of research institutions fund their journal subscriptions with government money. Why should the government not be allowed to cut out the middlemen (individual library systems) and negotiate on behalf of all of them? The current U.S. budget deficit strains all appropriations. Why can the government not negotiate with publishers? It is understandable that publishers want the sort of deal that drug companies got with the Medicare drug plan, but do they deserve it? How do such unnecessary expenses benefit the scientific enterprise? Is it unreasonable for, say, the National Science Foundation to demand that the research it funds be available to all? Again, this is a scenario that favors larger institutions.

Third, the issue of ownership and copyright must be remedied. It is unfair that a journal should be given exclusive rights over an article written by diligent workers and subsidized by tax dollars, or even private funds. Magazines are given exclusive rights over reporters' writing in exchange for the salaries that they pay the reporters and the resources that they provide. In academic publishing, this is not the case. The publisher is providing a valuable service to researchers, but it is not supplying an office, not paying for printers, not buying lasers, and not making any material contributions to the articles that are published. Academic publishers are outstanding mediators in and lubricators of academic exchange. Publishers exist to serve the research community. The editorial and the general attitudes of publishers imply that they believe the opposite.

Academic publishers serve the same purpose as a public electric or water utility. They should be rewarded for the outstanding service that they perform, but they should not be allowed to abuse the vital service that they provide to gouge universities. The demand for information mirrors the demand for oil. Information, however, ought not to be treated like oil. Bills such as S. 2695 will keep coming up because the industry is not doing a convincing job of increasing access-as long as it seems as if they are working to keep the supply scarce and, hence, the prices high.

Payam Minoofar
Beverly Hills, Calif.



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