National Institutes of Health director Elias A. Zerhouni seems hell-bent on imposing an "open access" model of publishing on researchers receiving NIH grants. His action will inflict long-term damage on the communication of scientific results and on maintenance of the archive of scientific knowledge.
More important, Zerhouni's action is the opening salvo in the open-access movement's unstated, but clearly evident, goal of placing responsibility for the entire scientific enterprise in the federal government's hand. Open access, in fact, equates with socialized science.
Late on Friday, Sept. 3, NIH posted its proposed new policy on its website, setting in motion a 60-day public comment period (C&EN, Sept. 13, page 7). Under the policy, once manuscripts describing research supported by NIH have been peer reviewed and accepted for publication, they would have to be submitted to PubMed Central, NIH's free archive of biomedical research. The manuscripts would be posted on the site six months after journal publication.
Many observers believe that, if the NIH policy takes effect, other funding agencies will quickly follow suit. In short order, all research supported by the federal government would be posted on government websites six months after publication. This is unlikely to satisfy open-access advocates, who will continue to push for immediate posting of the research.
I find it incredible that a Republican Administration would institute a policy that will have the long-term effect of shifting responsibility for communicating scientific research and maintaining the archive of science, technology, and medical (STM) literature from the private sector to the federal government. It's especially hard to understand because access to the STM literature is more open today than it ever has been: Anyone can do a search of the literature and obtain papers that interest them, so long as they are willing to pay a reasonable fee for access to the material.
What is important to realize is that a subscription to an STM journal is no longer what people used to think of as a subscription; in fact, it is an access fee to a database maintained by the publisher. Sure, many libraries still receive weekly or monthly copies of journals printed on paper and bound as part of their subscription. Those paper copies of journals are becoming artifacts of a publishing world that is fast receding into the past. What matters is the database of articles in electronic form.
As I've written on this page in the past, one important consequence of electronic publishing is to shift primary responsibility for maintaining the archive of STM literature from libraries to publishers. I know that publishers like the American Chemical Society are committed to maintaining the archive of material they publish. Maintaining an archive, however, costs money. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which some publishers, their revenues squeezed at least in part by loss of subscriptions as a result of open-access policies, decide to cut costs by turning off access to their archives. The material, they would rationalize, is posted on government websites.
Which is, I suspect, the outcome desired by open-access advocates. Their unspoken crusade is to socialize all aspects of science, putting the federal government in charge of funding science, communicating science, and maintaining the archive of scientific knowledge. If that sounds like a good idea to you, then NIH's open-access policy should suit you just fine.
Farewell To An Old Friend
This week marks the passing of an era, Ken Reese's retirement as editor of Newscripts. Ken joined the Publications Division in 1954 and has written Newscripts for the past 36 years. He was C&EN's managing editor from 1962 to 1967. We will miss Ken's wry humor in the pages of C&EN.
Unlikely as it seems, Newscripts predates Ken (the first column appeared on the final page of the July 10, 1943, issue), and it will continue after his departure. Nine members of C&EN's staff have volunteered to take a crack at writing Newscripts for three-week stints each, which carries us well into 2005. After that, we'll settle on a regular rotation of Newscripts writers. Let us know what you think of their efforts.
Thanks for reading.