The Antidote

Counterspin for Health Care and Health News

Monday, January 29, 2007

Publishers pull out the big guns against open access

Our tax dollars fund scientific research to the tune of $54.7 billion per year. We know, in the case of health, that innovations can take on average 17 years to find their way into clinical practice if we leave it up to the system the way it is, but in the meantime, why shouldn't Americans have access to the results of the research we pay for? I'll confess my personal frustration at the lack of unfettered access to every imaginable journal that I enjoyed while I was in school, or working for the government. But I'm absolutely not alone in this - consumers in general need this research, and shouldn't have to pay $25 or $30 for a copy of an article.

Rick Weiss reports in the Washington Post this week on an effort led by former (liberal) Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder on behalf of a group of medical journal publishers against open access of publicly funded research results. The publishers argue that open access will erode their subscription base, making it difficult for them to afford to run the peer review process that's needed to ensure the quality of published scientific research. So they've hired, for close to half a million dollars, a heavy-hitting PR firm to counter the efforts of the open access movement.

Yes, we need peer review and journals. But is this really about peer review? I doubt it; I think it's more likely about profits. I imagine we can find a way to ensure that journals continue to exist in an open-access environment.

In a similar vein, the Pump Handle blog reports that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has decided to discontinue the Environews section, written with the general public in mind, from its open access journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, for budgetary reasons. The news section has been an important source of information on environmental research. The Pump Handle encourages readers to ask their Representatives to make sure that this resource does not get shoved aside.

And while we're on the subject of Environmental Health Perspectives, I'm going to share with you a gratuitous link to one of my own articles, my pride and joy really, published in that journal back in 1994, in my third year of graduate school. Be warned: it's pretty geeky stuff.


At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Susan Kuchinskas said...

This is a big peeve of mine, as well. I'm researching a book and trolling through hundreds of papers. A large number of the studies seem to have been funded by the National Institutes -- with my tax dollars.

Now, obviously, these journals' business models are based on institutional subscribers paying plenty for subscriptions with money that's not theirs. I'm not sure opening internet access to articles would erode their revenue in the short term; universities would still buy database access for their students. I'm sure that scientific peers still would be willing to review articles. Do they get paid that much? Isn't it more about prestige?

there's also a middle ground. Why can't the NIH put out a press release/precis giving the highlights of each paper resulting from research it funds?

That would give the public information in a style that would be more intelligible. Other researchers would still have to pay to see the entire articles with all the charts and methodologies and references.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger Emily DeVoto, Ph.D., said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. About the NIH putting out press releases - interesting idea. They do, with some of their key findings, to the tune of, oh, 20 or 25 a week or so (you can get a sense of them here: The volume of NIH-funded research actually published each week is - well, I can't really guess at the numbers, but it's got to be huge. Digesting it for the public, too, assumes that the NIH writers are pretty savvy about data; many of them are (I have worked with them), but the volume of well-trained staff it would take to keep up with all NIH-funded research would be prohibitive. Plus, as a researcher -type myself, I like to get my hands on the actual data and study details, and I think the scientists who work with patient advocacy groups do, too.

There may be more we can do with libraries, which limit access to online journals to certain numbers of users, based on license agreements with the journals. I don't know much about these agreements but I imagine that, again, the journals are limiting these numbers in order to protect their subscription base. Even if, say, 10,000 students and faculty at a state university theoretically have access, the library has an idea that some small fraction of those will actually be using the journals. For potentially heavier users of medical journals like you and me, they charge thousands of dollars a year for online access.

Some libraries, though, extend free access to alumni. I need to find out more about how they make that calculation.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just the hiring of a PR hit guy like Dezenhall. Sientific American reported that the American Chemical Society has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on two lobby firms to defeat open access.

Read the story:

At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks like the group behind the PRISM Coalition is actually the American Chemical Society. Certainly, some of the top leaders at ACS, such as Brian Crawford are involved. And Madeleine Jacobs has never been a friend of Open Access.


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