August 27, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Losing Its Monopoly

The big journals have been ordered to make federally-funded research
available to the public immediately upon publication. They’re terrified.


Who Owns Science?

When taxpayers fund research, don’t they have a right to read the results? This question lies behind the Open Science initiative. It began when Europeans codified Plan S, an effort to promote open access publishing of scientific results. The Big Science journals (e.g., Nature, Science) have been running scared ever since. Now, they’re terrified.

The journal editors know that the US Government is the biggest funder of scientific research in the world. The argument that taxpayers have a right to see the results makes sense to many, but the journals argue that they add value to research by publishing it in nice journals with graphs, charts, and… high subscription fees. Academic libraries have forked over these fees for years to stuff their library stacks because they can afford to, and the big guns were happy. Happy until the public started asking, “Hey! Who owns science? We paid for that!”. It seems patently unfair for taxpayers to pay hundreds of dollars a year to see the results.

The internet changed old publishing models. Subscribers and libraries often share published research papers to non-subscribers. Journal publishers, on the other hand, save huge amounts of money in paper and ink, and no longer have exorbitant shipping costs. Is anybody really buying print copies any more?

In an attempt to mollify the Open Access promoters, Big Science journals have tried to compromise in two ways. One way was to join in the Open Science community by offering free online journals: Nature with Nature Communications and Nature Scientific Reports, and the AAAS (publisher of Science Magazine behind its paywall) with Science Advances. The researchers pay for the privilege of getting their work published in those journals. The other compromise was to delay access to papers for a year. This motivated many who need the latest news to keep paying the subscription fees. Meanwhile, open access (OA) journals like PLoS (Public Library of Science) have been blossoming like weeds, along with preprint servers like bioRxiv. The old post-WW2 publishing model is waning like VHS tapes and DVDs.

Sea Change Coming

Now, the Biden administration is telling science publishers that any federally-funded research must be made publicly available immediately when published. In a news piece August 26, Nature reports that the “Biden administration instructs all US agencies to require immediate access to federally funded research after it is published, starting in 2026.” This order came via the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The OSTP recommends that agencies ensure that peer-reviewed work from their grant recipients is made available in an agency-approved public repository without delay after publication. Each agency can develop its own protocols about precisely how this is to be done — a process to be completed in the next six months to a year.

US government reveals big changes to open-access policy (Nature News, 26 August 2022). Jeff Tollefson and Richard Van Noorden, writing for Nature, claim no conflict of interest because “Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher.” They evidently share the terror of their employer, though.

Because the United States is the world’s biggest research funder, the change — to be implemented by the end of 2025, if not sooner — is a boost for the growing open access (OA) movement to make scientific research publicly available. This has already been hugely encouraged by Plan S, a charge towards zero-embargo OA led by European funders. “It’s a very big deal,” says Peter Suber, who heads the Harvard Open Access Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This new US policy is a game changer for scholarly publishing,” adds Johan Rooryck, the executive director of the cOAlition S group of funders that is behind the European-led plan.

Nature sees the handwriting on the wall.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) in Washington DC issued a statement saying the OSTP announcement “comes without formal, meaningful consultation or public input during this Administration on a decision that will have sweeping ramifications, including serious economic impact”. It said it had concerns about “business sustainability and quality”. The AAP was among publishers that strongly objected to a rumoured White House change to the US public-access policy in 2019.

Lest anyone think it was President Trump’s decision to do this, the first salvos toward OA requirements occurred during the Obama administration. Meanwhile, Europeans have been pushing their Plan S worldwide.

The OSTP guidance builds on US public-access policies that date back nearly two decades. In 2008, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major funder of biomedical research, told scientists receiving its grants to deposit their studies in a public repository within a year of publication. Seven years later, the administration of then-US president Barack Obama extended that requirement to include recipients of funds from some 20 other federal agencies. Under that policy, more than eight million scholarly publications have become free to read, and together they are viewed by three million people per day.

Nature knows full well what the new rule for immediate OA portends for their business model. But is it fair to solicit the US Government for financial aid?

The White House is not insisting that papers also be made OA in scientific journals. But with future US research papers becoming available immediately in repositories, publishers might fear libraries cancelling journal subscriptions. They could react by shifting more towards OA publishing, observers say. So far, journal publishers have mostly responded by saying that they’re committed to providing OA options for researchers. However, some have said that they hope US agencies will also provide more funding for OA publishing, and others that they’re worried about the sustainability of their businesses.

The Big Science journals are scrambling to come up with new models to keep their subscribers paying. They seem to have forgotten that their publications, both in print and online, are filled with ads.

Update 8/30/2022: For a view of the open-access trend from an Australian perspective, see this article in The Conversation by Virginia Barbour on 29 Aug 2022. She says, “Changing the system has been challenging, not least because academic publishing is dominated by a small number of highly profitable and powerful publishers.” She reposted a Tweet by Dr Jessica Taylor from 2021 that reads, “A reminder that Elsevier made $6 BILLION selling your academic journals and articles behind paywalls, and made more profit than Amazon, Google and Apple every year for YEARS… And paid the academics who wrote the articles $0 And paid the reviewers of the articles $0.”

My heart bleeds for Nature.

Much as I support free enterprise, and oppose government control, the Big Science journals have been making a killing in their monopolies for too long, using OPM (other people’s money). If they have a product worth buying, let them offer it. They can always turn to selling corn dogs and cotton candy.

Better yet, let Big Science journal editors use the Darwinian evolutionary theory they believe in so uncritically. It’s all about survival of the fittest, isn’t it? Too bad they are losing out in the fitness game. Stuff Happens. Maybe they should just wait a few million years for a beneficial mutation to give them a survival advantage. Or they can play evolutionary game theory: the game of cheaters and cooperators, Prisoner’s Dilemma or one of the other amoral tricks that Darwinians write about in their journals to explain altruism.

Better yet, they can follow the creationists’ model. Creationists maintain their readership by subscriptions to their peer-reviewed material because they offer research and evidence that Big Science refuses to consider. How about it, Nature? Tell the truth for once about the Cambrian Explosion and the origin of the Grand Canyon.

In the meantime, let us read the findings our tax dollars pay for. And no; don’t go begging at the public coffer for our money to subsidize your old, outdated business model.




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