Open Access Advocates Trumpet the Fall of the Paywall

26 May 2013 by Shannon Bohle, posted in Open Access, Uncategorized

Major changes are underway in the US and around the globe in the methods by which scientific and medical research findings and data sets are circulated among researchers and disseminated to the public. In a three-part expose on the subject of open access journals and data, the next few articles in my blog will examine the background and reasoning for these recent changes, detail the particular changes that will occur, and discuss the dramatic impact they may have on libraries and library users.

Fields Medalist Sparks
Subscription Journal Boycott
(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Subscription Journals’ Business Model Under Scrutiny

In this first article, I hope to summarize and equally represent both sides of the issue, for-profit subscription-based publishers and open access advocates. I will take a particular interest from the position of medical librarians. This is because the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandates served as the model for the future of all US government-funded research, particularly the introduction of the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum , both of which were issued in February of this year. Several online petitions in the US and the UK for reforms in public access to federally-funded scientific and medical data and results should also be credited for spurring the creation of new legislation and policy formation in both countries. Petitions that gained the most attention were the “Open Access to the Results of Scientific Research” in the US on the “We the People” website and the boycott on Elsevier journals by academics started by British Fields Medalist, Sir William Timothy Gowers’ blog, and for which over 13,000 researchers signed a petition on “The Cost of Knowledge.”

Libraries as the Primary Access Points for Journal Articles

Professional library organizations like the US-based Medical Library Association (MLA) publicly support open access to governmentally funded information. The reason is that, generally, the primary mission of libraries has been to make information freely available to their users. Libraries can be either privately or publicly funded, or benefit from a mixture of funding streams. Most libraries, despite their funding sources, are considered nonprofit charity organizations and contributors to the “public good.” Libraries have been facing the escalating costs of journals for more than a decade. Despite many efforts on the part of libraries, which have significantly decreased costs related to journal access through consortia efforts, they seem to be losing the battle when it comes to balancing their budgets in light of these dramatic increases in price. Certainly, reduction of these costs by an increase in freely available materials would benefit libraries and their users. In particular, the “MLA supports the concept of open access to information generated from federally funded scientific and medical research, and maintains that having access to timely, relevant, and accurate information is vital to the health of our nation and its education and research programs.” It adopted the definition of open access put forth by Peter Suber, “Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Senior Researcher at SPARC, Open Access Project Director at Public Knowledge, and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College.” According to Suber, open access is defined as “literature [that] is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions” and “that true open access involves removal of price barriers and permission barriers; however, it has become acceptable to use the term ‘open access’ when only the price barriers have been removed and the permission barriers remain.”

How Open Access Benefits Individuals,
Academics, Journals, and the Economy

Journals, what librarians refer to as “serials” or “periodicals,” are the lifeblood of scientific and medical dissemination for the communication of clinical studies and basic research findings which ultimately result in technological progress and health breakthroughs that benefit society.  Scientific and medical information, in particular, are most valuable as current commodities for the invention, adoption, application, and stimulation of economic growth during the first five years after publication. Adherence to the lengthy hold journals posses on the materials under copyright law—which is fifty years or more in most countries—open access advocates might argue, stifles economic benefits that contribute to a nation’s GDP.  This line of argumentation got the attention of policy makers on Pennsylvania Avenue and Downing Street and is having a tremendous effect right now upon science and technology policy.

(Image Credit: University of Arkansas)

The current debate around open access stems from the increasing availability of information, generally freely available on the Internet, that consumers have increasingly come to expect.  Also called into question is the underlying business model sustaining subscription journal businesses.  Particular attention has been drawn to practices related to the publisher Elsevier, a company that has come under attack for its practice of selling unwanted and expensive journals to libraries in an all-or-nothing exorbitant sales practice called “bundling.” The argument is, public funds support many universities, student loans, salaries for student researchers and faculty researchers, and that the journals themselves are providing increasingly lower and lower quality in terms of their editorial services. For-profit subscription journals also have traditionally relied upon the free labor of highly trained and qualified volunteer editorial board members as well as unpaid peer reviewers.  Therefore, open access advocates assert, taxpayers and almost everyone involved is getting an all-around poor return on their investment. In the minds of open access advocates, publishers have a right to make a profit but have failed to adequately explain and defend the various services they provide and the expenses they have incurred related to the production and dissemination of scholarly materials which would justify their cost, particularly journals published in an online-only format. To many, it seems that maintaining the subscription business model is only about profit—that it relies heavily on tradition, has benefited from free labor and technology developments, but then failed to pass on those savings to their consumers, namely libraries and the general public.  Fundamentally the question they pose is, does the subscription business model for dissemination of scientific and medical information make sense in the digital Internet age to anyone but the publishers? 

Dr. John Holdren Directs the OSTP, which operates under the parent agency of the Executive Office of the President.

A legislative effort known as Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, under the aptly acronym (FAST[e]R) was introduced February 14th to speed dissemination of results from publicly funded research in a freely-accessible, online venue.  Following that, on February 22nd, the Obama administration issued a new policy through the OSTP aimed at “expanding public access to the results of federally funded research.” The policy is targeted at regulating large funding agencies with “with more than $100 million in R&D expenditures” who supply academics and other researchers with financial support.

In addition to economic reasons, there are several other arguments that bolster support for the change towards open access.

It has been argued that medical research, in particular, is difficult and expensive to access by patients and their families seeking solutions to immediate and life-threatening conditions.  Individuals suffering from health issues can pay $35 USD or more per article, substantially adding to their family’s health care costs. Economically challenged populations both nationally (such as certain areas without a nearby public college or university library where they can enter and use databases on-site in the library) as well as internationally (like developing nations) are particularly at risk for being deprived of critical medical solutions as well as studies needed to help treat problems like AIDS, malaria, and malnutrition.

Studies have shown that open access articles are cited more often and therefore serve to benefit both author and journal. First, because more people read the article, this has had the effect of improving a researcher’s academic standing by boosting the number of times his or her article is cited in other publications which can, in turn, have a profound effect on the researcher’s eligibility for tenure and pay increases. Ultimately, the number of times an article in a particular journal is cited affects that journal’s impact factor, so it makes sense that journals that encourage open access stand to benefit over competitors that do not. Traditionally, the best research tends to be submitted to journals with high impact factors, and thus a cycle of good research yielding high readership that boosts a journal’s prestige and demand is reinforced. Journals that do not offer open access options may see a shift in the number and quality of submissions going to ones that do, possibly opening the door for new scientific and medical journals to compete for top research results. The highly regarded Public Library of Science (PLOS) was founded in 2000 on just such an idea.

Benefits of the Traditional Subscription Model in a Digital Age

The Research Works Act (H.R.3699) (Dec. 16, 2011) was a bill designed to protect the rights of publishers by attempting to repeal the NIH Public Access Policy (Jan. 11, 2008) and preventing it from serving as a precedent for other government funders—exactly what the recent OSTP memorandum encouraged.

Some of the benefits arguing for the sustainment of the subscription model lay in the continued support of traditional avenues for information dissemination.  Libraries  have spent a great deal of money, space allocation, binding expense, and staff labor investing in serials librarianship, as well as maintaining backlogs covering decades or even a century of articles for some journals.  While the digital age may seem to be a panacea to the public, serials librarians approach the problem of online access with due caution. These concerns are due to the possibility that an essential journal might be dropped by an e-resource provider. Some libraries have created collectives where many old physical volumes are disposed of, but, through a consortia agreement, at least one print copy for each issue is maintained for group members, usually in a central off-site storage location.

Another argument in support of the subscription model is that it provides a support system for some journals that might not otherwise exist due to small circulation rates, usually because these journals focus on highly specialized or small fields. Journals representing these disciplines might not be economically viable without “bundling” those journals into packages with more in-demand titles with a wider reach.  It could be argued that print copies of these journals are simply cost-prohibitive and without such "bundling" their dissemination might be downgraded to online-only journals or cease to exist altogether.

An argument, worthy of consideration, is the expansion of the paid subscription model to open more doors enabling author-side payments guaranteeing open access to full-text articles. In many cases, universities have covered these costs for their faculty and graduate students. With the FASTR mandate aimed at funding agencies, funders might instead build into the funding package and application an added stipend to cover online full-text access fees for those articles published in paid subscription journals.

One area of caution regarding veering towards any system based on author-side payments has been a rise in what is being called predatory publishing practices. If one is dissatisfied with traditional for-profit models, moving to the open access model where authors bear the cost so that the public can enjoy their work freely is not without worst-case-scenario perils of horrific proportions. Last month the New York Times published “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too)” on its front page, bringing to light “the dark side of open access,” by exposing how “scientists had stumbled into a parallel world of pseudo-academia.” Many of the companies, the article noted, “have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications,” leading at least one scientist to admit, “‘I think we were duped.’” Publishing one’s work by paying a fee is a long-established practice by using what have been derogatorily named “vanity presses,” that most professional writers in all fields, from poetry to science, avoided like the plague. It is going to be a much more difficult situation to determine what is “vanity” and what is “legitimate” in open access publishing, given that payment to the author versus from the author was the old standard used for differentiation. Mentioned in that same NYT article was University of Colorado-Denver librarian, Jeffrey Beall, who published a list of journals and their parent companies whom he felt took advantage of authors through predatory practices.  Beall’s personal blog “Scholarly Open Access” names names, and in doing so, Beall opened himself up to legal problems. One publisher named on “Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers 2013” is India-based OMICS publishing group. OMICS “has 250 journals and charges authors as much as $2,700 per paper,” the NYT reported. According a May 15, 2013 article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, OMICS “intends to sue Mr. Beall, and says it is seeking $1-billion in damages” and states that Beall could face a three-year prison sentence in India “under India’s Information Technology Act.” Part of the problem is that there do not seem to be established and widely-accepted guidelines to draw the line separating “legitimate” from “predatory” journals. Beall published his personal criteria for scholarly publishing on his blog, and using his own criteria, Beall estimated that at least 25 percent of open access journals are predatory. If nothing else, Beall and the NYT raised the issue that there is a legitimate need for establishing standards for academic journal publishing practices. This need could to be addressed by officially organizing collaborative input and participation through an independent, international review board comprised of library groups, journal publishers, policy makers, and the public. Journals could be then be periodically evaluated, assigned a score or rank based on these guidelines, and the results of these evaluations could be published online. Given the current circumstances with Beall, it appears the issue may be addressed through legal battles and case law as well.

In terms of copyright, the general argument of open access supporters is that if the government funds the research, that intellectual property—under agreement with the individual researchers and/or the team receiving funding—resides with the government due to the taxpayers’ dollars from which that funding is derived. At least in the US, this is not the case. Under US copyright law, “the creator of the original expression in a work is its author. The author is also the owner of copyright unless there is a written agreement by which the author assigns the copyright to another person or entity, such as a publisher. In cases of works made for hire, the employer or commissioning party is considered to be the author.”

Based on this, in my opinion, copyright and intellectual property (IP) rights would appear to reside with the authors themselves unless specified otherwise in a contract either with the government prior to receiving grant funding (as a work for hire) or afterwards with a publisher. Generally, after an article is written, rights are transferred to the publisher, who may or may not allow the author(s) to reprint or re-host the article somewhere else—including the internet. In many cases, publishers are now moving toward a limited embargo (a period of time when the information cannot be available other than through their publication). Following the embargo, these publishers may allow a copy to be posted on an institutional or author(s) personal web page. Similar ends could be achieved by requiring a model instead where the information is in fact freely available by the publisher on the internet after a period of six months to one year. Alternately, after six months to a year, search engines and entrepreneurs could devise strategies and systems to collect, organize, and disseminate these pages. Institutions and libraries could add links into their catalog and into PubMed abstracts. These links would lead to pages that could be deposited into a central location managed by the host academic institution’s library such as D-Space. Such a compromise would make the full-text articles freely available in a reasonable time, sustain the subscription model, and also promote the universities affiliated with the research. It would support and sustain the companies using traditional subscription models, companies known for their academic reputations for excellence, and for which significant time, energy, and money have already been invested by libraries in preserving and making available resources from these trusted information providers.

Why the Open Access Debate Benefits Consumers

At first glance, FASTR and the OSTP policy mandate may seem a financial boon to open access journals and a serious challenge to companies supporting the subscription journal model, potentially putting them out of business.  Even if the policies are not adopted and implemented, the process of debating the issues should result in a clearer and more transparent description of the services and benefits all academic journals provide, ideally resulting in new and improved offerings that will benefit their company, academia, and researchers of all sorts. As more readers in the public want access to scholarly materials with exceptional reading level difficulty, the importance of added glosses, dictionaries, descriptions, and metadata may give rise to a supplemental industry.  Finally, it brings added incentive for researchers to share their data—a problem that has been a major sticking point in the implementation of data set access and reuse. The downside is that with any revision and retrenchment process, it is going to cost money, and those costs will be passed on to the consumer, whether in the form of taxes or subscription/article price.

PubMed Central, where the NIH Public Access Policy mandate requires articles to be deposited, traditionally contains freely available summaries and abstracts of all articles. However, many argue that the abstracts are too vague and that in some cases it has proven necessary to purchase an article only to find out that the article is not what the consumer thought it was and proved unhelpful in their research. One obvious solution to this problem would be improved descriptive practices of the abstracts provided by these databases to ensure when an article is purchased, just like any other good or service, that the consumer is getting what he or she expected. In the US, we saw similar mandates crop up in the food industry with the result being improved food labeling that detailing calories, fat content, percent of daily vitamins, and so on.  American consumers are used to paying for things they want. But with millions of articles written at a level of complexity above the standard 8th grade reading level (which is used as the benchmark for signage in public places like museums), consumers are going have a difficult time making informed decisions about these newly available scholarly commodities. Without additional help, their decisions will be obfuscated by complex and specialized medical and scientific terminology, vagueness, and lack of a cohesive ontology tying related articles together in a process that complicates resource discovery. That is, if common people try to read academic articles they are going to have a hard time locating articles related to their medical issues and understanding them. Unless they are familiar with Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), taxonomies, and ontologies, they will not be able to do effective subject searching without the aid of a medical librarian. Even academics run into problems when trying to read outside their own discipline. Therefore, if the audience changes, any improvements that are undertaken would benefit not only the public but also academics conducting cross-disciplinary research.

Click here to go to the course page.

Patients, doctors, and other health professionals are increasingly moving toward encoding electronic heath records. These records use standards which are not yet linked to medical research publications but should be. Doing so would facilitate real results by improving physician access to information and empowering patients to do research so they can be educated and take more control over their personal health problems. For example, there have been significant advancements in the cataloging of electronic health records in terms of taxonomy and ontology that have not yet been linked with and across important databases like PubMed Central, Medlineplus, and These standards are HL7 , CDA, CCR, CCD, ICD-10, LOINC, and SnowMed CT. (See this browser for examples). I did not learn about them during my graduate education in library and information science, but in Coursera’s free online class, “Health Informatics in the Cloud.” 

Students in the course "Health Informatics in the Cloud" were given Statements of Accomplishment like this one.                      (Click the image to enlarge).

The prospect exists for using the NIH as a model for the spread of open access mandates across various government agencies. This would mean that the integration and explanation of various industry-specific taxonomic and ontological metadata standards, like the ones mentioned above for health issues, could also be linked to the related research findings, making searching easier for the non-specialist.

What's Next 

In the second article of this three-part expose on the subject of open access journals and data I will be taking a closer look at defining e-Science. I will also be examining the scholarly community’s response to the White House OSTP memorandum mentioned in this article by summarizing four days of meetings held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC from the perspective of its relevancy to, and the participation of, science and medical librarians, many of whom attended the NAS meetings in person or virtually contributed their input.

Disclosure: The author discloses she is a member of the Medical Library Association (MLA) and holds a Senior Member level Academy of Health Information Professionals (AHIP) credential. The author is not a lawyer and while she may state her opinions in this article it is not her intention to provide legal advice. Any opinions stated in this article, therefore, should not be interpreted as such.

4 Responses to “Open Access Advocates Trumpet the Fall of the Paywall”

  1. Catherine Arnott Smith Reply | Permalink

    I am a former medical librarian with a master's and doctorate from an NLM biomedical informatics training program. In my doctoral work I focused on an information retrieval experiment using deidentified electronic medical records and the Clinical Document Architecture (CDA), a standard which you mention briefly in this piece. I completely agree that the more we can do to facilitate individuals' access to their health information, and research about health information, the better. We have many decades of experience with ontologies and taxonomies in biomedical informatics, which is a field that has drawn in quite a few medical librarians over the years. Some of this research has been devoted to the utility called the Infobutton, developed at Columbia University, which connects the EHR to medical knowledge bases including, but not limited to, medical literature. (See for a recent incarnation). With this background, I'm frankly puzzled by your description of "cataloging" electronic health records implying their use by consumers and patients: " These records use standards which are not yet linked to medical research publications but should be." EHRs are not the same thing as personal health records (PHRs), although "tethered" PHRs can offer consumer/patient users views of information drawn from the EHR used by the healthcare professionals those consumers and patients see. Can you clarify?

  2. Shannon Bohle Reply | Permalink

    Catherine Smith, I am not certain why you thought I claimed that EHRs and PHRs were the same. I never stated that in the article. The various things I mentioned: HL7, CDA, CCR, CCD, ICD-10, LOINC, and SnowMed CT are all used specifically in "EHRs," exactly as I stated in the article. In fact, I don't even mention the Personal Health Record (PHR) at all. I did state, "Patients, doctors, and other health professionals are increasingly moving toward encoding electronic heath records." This statement in itself is true, and depending on how it is read, it could imply the existence of PHRs. However, I specifically did not mention PHRs to avoid confusion. I suppose I could issue a correction for the sake of clarity so that the sentence reads instead, "Doctors and other health professionals are increasingly moving toward encoding patients' electronic heath records." The third article in the series will be an evaluation of specific tools, and I can include Infobuttons as one of the tools I evaluate. This third article will also clarify in detail what I meant by using health informatics taxonomies/ontologies. Essentially, metadata added to PubMed Central articles in addition to MeSH, such as LOINC and Snowmed CT codes, might provide patients/consumers with improved search terms when researching their personal health conditions in databases that are very specific to their diagnoses and medical tests. In my opinion, it would be a step closer towards empowering them to do internet searches about their specific conditions and in doing so provide improved personalization of their health care experiences. I have been in correspondence with NCBI and NIH regarding the feasibility of implementing LOINC and Snowmed CT codes and will hopefully have more details from them for the third article which I have already started writing. I hope this brief reply and the next article meets with your satisfaction.

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