Symposium Remarks by David Shulenburger
I first spoke of problems with the scholarly communications system to the faculty of the University of Kansas in 1998. Since that time I have spoken on this topic on more than a hundred university campuses, at scores of scholarly conferences, to international conferences and national research agencies and have written numerous articles (1).
As a university provost (my position from 1993 until 2006) I developed this intense involvement with the subject of scholarly communications because access to the scholarly literature is key to the productivity of faculty and the progress of science and that access is more limited than it need be. As provost I could not provide enough funding to our library to permit faculty all the access to the scholarly literature they needed. As it turns out, nearly all provosts, of public and private universities alike, were also unable to provide their faculty full access to scholarly journals, so I have many supportive and understanding peers.
So I got involved with AAU, NASULGC, The Association of Research Libraries and SPARC to develop an understanding of the problems of the scholarly communications system and to try to remedy them. My efforts have been a small part of a world-wide community effort. While the problems of the scholarly communications system are far from resolved, dramatic change has occurred.
What has changed? There are now 3,845 open access scholarly journals (2). Seventy publishers (3) who produce approximately 1334 journal titles allow the publishers' final version of articles to be deposited in institutional repositories in some manner. Electronic institutional repositories have been inaugurated in 278 universities in North America, 518 in Europe, with a total of 1,050 world-wide in which faculty members are depositing all manner of scholarly product (4). Open disciplinary repositories exist in physics, math, computer science, cognitive science economics, life sciences and medicine. Many private foundations and governmental research funding agencies world-wide have taken steps to create public access to scholarly articles arising from the research they fund.
More and more faculty members as a matter of routine make their scholarly work available on-line. Indeed, the norms of the scholarly community have changed rapidly and momentum exists for further change; it is now inevitable that scholarly work increasingly will be made publicly available.
The questions are: Can this happen quickly? How we can make the transition a smooth one that is supportive of science? And, how can we ensure that open depositories contain all of the scholarly research that emanates from federal science research funding?
The NIH public access policy is a model quick and orderly path to positive answers to each of the three questions. In addition, NIH public access responds to the public’s desire for full availability (even though delayed) to research findings funded by their tax dollars. Satisfying that desire helps ensure that public funds remain available in sufficient quantity to fund scientific research and exploration. Expanding NIH-like public access policies to all federal science funding agencies would be good for the expansion of science, for scientists and for the public worldwide.
There are two key elements of the NIH plan that should be part of the public access plans adopted by other federal science funding agencies:
1- Deposit must be mandatory – we’ve learned through experience that busy faculty place low priority on voluntary deposit.
2- There should be an embargo period of from six to twelve months before deposited manuscripts become available for public access, with the journal of publication setting the precise embargo period within the specified interval.
Other specifications are optional:
- Having articles held in an agency-run depository such as PubMed Central is unnecessary. Articles could be deposited in well-run university or disciplinary repositories under conditions specified by the research funding agency and still be fully available.
- It would be helpful to users if the submissions were in the form in which they appear in the journal of publication, but this is an improvement and not a necessity.
Journal subscriptions will not decline precipitously if articles arising from federally financed research become available for free after an embargo period. Research university faculty are an impatient lot and will not wait a year (or for that matter six-months) to get access to the research literature published in the leading journals. They will not permit their libraries to cancel subscriptions to the top journals in their fields, compelling them to wait until the articles are available for free.
In addition, few journals publish only research arising from federal science funding agencies, so the many articles that would never become available through public access create a continuing demand for journal subscription.
Many scholarly journals voluntarily give authors permission to post their papers on publicly accessible websites, and they continue to survive. They do so because the practice represents a valuable service to science and does not significantly alter their economic base.
Contentions that NIH’s public access policy or replications of it in other federal science funding agencies will threaten the survival of refereeing are largely hyperbole. Refereeing is a core function for the academy and for scholarly journals. Its quality is what distinguishes the top journals from the also-rans, the key device relied upon to help faculty choose what to read and the marker used to help evaluate the quality of colleagues’ research. Other society functions or publication expenses will be sacrificed long before quality scholarly journals will allow refereeing to be diminished.
And, in the unlikely event that existing STEM journals got to the point that they could not or would not support refereeing, would that mean the end of it? I rather think not. Most colleagues say “yes” when asked to referee a paper and they do so without monetary compensation. That willingness to referee plus the continuing very high birth rate of new journals, many of them free of subscription fees, suggests that the institution of refereeing will be continued, probably by existing journals, but if not by them, by new journals that, like hydra, will arise to take their places if they falter. Mean paid journal subscriptions at ARL member libraries (5) grew from about 16,000 in 1986 to 39,000 in 2006. During the same period unpaid electronic subscriptions grew from nothing to 7,500, with most of that growth occurring since 2000.
The rapid growth of journals paid for by sources other than subscription revenues demonstrates the willingness to innovate to find ways to retain the scholarly journal as the article distribution venue of choice.
We are inventive, industrious and entrepreneurial. We will find ways to keep subscription-based journals thriving as we create other viable economic models that support the publication of scholarly research. Scholarly journals and the refereeing function are not about to die or even weaken if the NIH Public Access policy is generalized to other federal funding agencies.
Publishers would prefer to retain the right to perpetually distribute scholarly articles as they have for many decades. Reduction of this exclusive distribution period to six months or one year will cause some disruption and adjustment. But that disruption will be more than offset by a return to scholars and the public of a greater portion of the value of that research.
We have had much experience with the public asking government to increase access to public goods. Our government overtime has changed the practice of giving at little on no cost to industry mineral rights, timber rights and grazing rights to public lands and to distributing for nominal fees to broadcasters and others the rights to have their transmissions occupy the spectrum. Every such proposed change has been met by industry protest and prediction of disaster for the industry and the public if the changes were put in place. These protests are simply expressions that they prefer the certainty of old arrangements over the uncertainty of new ones.
For the past three years I’ve been vice president for NASULGC, the oldest higher education association in the United States. 217 public universities and their systems are members; every large public research university in every state belongs. Our members educate 58% of the Ph.D.s produced in this country and conduct 61.5% of the federally-funded research.
NASULGC supported the NIH public access plan because our members support it. They understand that access to the scholarly literature is critical to the progress of science and that public access provides the best and most complete form of long-term access.
Two weeks ago I e-mailed the NASULGC provosts asking them how the implementation of the NIH Public Access policy went, whether faculty on their campuses had objections to either the deposit mandate or to its implementation. I did not receive a single report of faculty opposition to NIH public access and only a very few concerns about implementation. Faculty members see the benefit of easy public access to the research literature and they support it.
The good that can come from ensuring that all scientists have public access to research findings is potentially immense. Spreading this access to graduate students, undergraduates, small business owners and independent thinkers everywhere multiples the potential gain.
On behalf of those public universities who are members of NASULGC, I ask that you support expanding public access policies to all federal science funding agencies, with the attributes of mandated deposit and limited embargo period intact.
(1) See, for example “The High Cost of Scholarly Journals (And What to do About It),” pp.10-19, in Change, (with Richard Edwards), (November/December 2003) and “Public Goods and Open Access,” in New Review of Information Networking, Vol. II, No. 1, (May 2005), pp. 3-11 and “Principles for a New System of Publishing for Science,” Proceedings of the Second ICSU-UNESCO Conference on Electronic Publishing in Science, http://associnst.ox.ac.uk/~icsuinfo/shulenburgerfin.htm
(2) See Directory of Open Access Journals http://www.doaj.org/
(3) See Project Romeo for a list of these publishers