Recently, Gordon Nelson, President of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP), published an article in the Capitol Hill publication The Hill entitled, “What happens when you take something of value and give it away?” The article was in response to the Department of Energy’s public access plan, which was created in response to the OSTP Memorandum issued last year.
An issue that has consistently arisen in light of changes to the funding of publications is the viability of professional societies. In the UK, this has been a major issue for those debating and evaluating the RCUK mandates.
In this interview, the terms “open access” and “public access” are used interchangeably. I have not edited the responses to make any distinctions that were not provided.
Q: Tell me a little about the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.
A: CSSP was founded 41 years ago. Its members are those in the presidential succession of some 60 science, mathematics, and science and mathematics education societies. The membership of member societies totals some 1.4 million scientists and educators. Our top priorities include strong support for science, scientific research, and science education.
Q: Has the issue of public access been a discussion point for the CSSP?
A: I became President of CSSP effective January 1, 2013. The OSTP open access directive was issued February 22nd. I had a letter to the editor of the New York Times entitled, ”Free Access to Research” published March 4th. Open access is one of three key issues for CSSP: open access, science funding, and the ability of Federal scientists to attend scientific meetings and conferences.
Q: You recently wrote an article for The Hill, entitled, “What happens when you take something of value and give it away?” What inspired you to write the article?
A: Open access is a very significant issue for the future of scientific societies. It was clear that the first Federal agency policies would issue in late summer. We wanted to write an article to highlight that there are consequences for societies and for science.
Q: You write in the article about “transparent, evidence-based” processes to account for the wide variations that can occur between disciplines, especially as it relates to embargoes. Can you talk about some of these differences, and perhaps about some of the evidence you think isn’t receiving sufficient attention?
A: A few people have read “Journal Usage Half-Life” by Philip M. Davis, November 25, 2013. He analyzed 2,800 journals published by 13 presses. He noted that the median age of articles downloaded from a publisher’s website (usage half-life), that just 3% of journals had half-lives shorter than 12 months. Half-lives were shortest in the health sciences (24-36 months). Humanities, physics and mathematics had half-lives of 49-60 months. Most sciences and engineering disciplines were in the 36-48 month range. Nearly 17% of all journals had usage half-lives exceeding six years. The purpose of an embargo is to insure some level of journal financial viability. A too short embargo with a journal of a long half-life will mean users can wait until the end of the embargo period, avoid a subscription, and get most of what they need for free, and the journal goes under. The health sciences have been the basis of much of the background going into open access policy development, with an embargo of 12 months (apparently successful). Again, examination of the half-life data shows that different disciplines have different journal half-lives. For most disciplines to have the same impact as an embargo of 12 months for the health sciences, the embargo should be longer than 12 months (at least 24 months in most cases). So to transparency, why is a particular embargo selected at, say 12 months? Decisions should be data-based. There is evidence to help make that judgment.
Q: You write about how scientific societies use funds received from their publishing activities to further advance science and the training of scientists. Can you elaborate and give some specific examples?
A: Scientific societies have a host of services that they provide for members and the public in addition to objective science publications: scholarly meetings both large and small, professional networking, courses/seminars, educational resources at all levels, honors and awards, career mentoring, public policy briefings, and public outreach activities like science cafes, to name a few. It is the historic positive net from publications that helps support the costs of a variety of non-publication STEM activities.
Q: You suggest that research grants may be affected by approaches that require authors to pay up-front for publication. Can you outline your concerns a bit more?
A: Societies have worked over the years to reduce or eliminate page charges to make publication of research results more accessible. If now one is to pay fees on the order of $1500 to $3000 per paper for open access publishing, in disciplines where that has not been the norm, where are researchers to get that money? Unless funding agencies increase grant size (which is unlikely), researchers will need to reduce expenses. For researchers I have talked with that means reducing the number of papers and/or cutting students. Neither is positive public policy.
Q: Do you see any better alternatives to solving the public access challenge?
A: Frankly, I am unclear what the public access challenge is. Who does not have access? I am not at a large university. I have always been able to get papers I needed over the years. I’ve published some 200 papers, plus chapters and books.
A viable, practical answer exists: a guide embargo of 24 months and CHORUS as the private sector interactive repository of the final peer-reviewed papers. That goes a long way to a solution.
Q: How has the article been received overall? Were you surprised at any reactions?
A: I received the response I expected, some positive some negative. Unfortunately, those on the negative side care little about impacting scientific societies, or the potential demise of some societies over this issue.
Q: You are involved with the American Chemical Society, which is one of the largest non-profit publishers in the STM market. Can you talk about your various roles with ACS? Are you still in contact with people there?
A: Yes, ACS is the largest scientific society in the world. It has 160,000 members. In 1988 I was President. I served 15 years on the Board. During that time I served terms as Chair of the Publications Committee and the Chemical Abstracts Committee. In its 40+ journals ACS in 2013 published nearly 40,000 articles and received more than 2.4 million total citations. ACS journals are #1 in citations in each of the seven chemistry categories. As a Past President I have remained active (including as a symposium chair) and I was at the ACS National Meeting in San Francisco earlier in August.
I got involved with CSSP as ACS President and was subsequently elected CSSP Chair. Thus when CSSP needed a new President in 2012 I was asked to step forward. It should be said that while ACS is a CSSP member, my job is not to articulate ACS policies, which they are very capable of doing.
Q: Are you familiar with the UK’s approaches to open access? Is there anything to learn from their approach and experiences?
A: I have followed the UK a bit. It must be remembered relative to the UK and to Europe as a whole, that volunteer activities, fundraising for nonprofits, is much more based on US culture. We have large numbers of nonprofits which broadly support the growth and development of science. That is what is at risk in making ill-considered choices in the open access process. That latter is much more a US issue than a European issue.
Q: You voice a concern about competitiveness and innovation given the potential for new public access policies. Can you elaborate?
A: Publishing journals is not free. In the worst case, by diversion of research funds from research to publication, if less research is done (the Federal government funds 60% of US basic research), if fewer papers are published, if fewer students are trained, clearly competitiveness and innovation take a hit.
Q: Are scientific societies against open access?
A: Not-for-profit scientific societies are not against open access. They have worked hard over the years to enhance access, to make access by a variety of groups (including students and those in developing countries) more affordable and accessible. I already mentioned the elimination of page charges to enhance research publication access. Students have special packages. Open access journals and hybrid journals have been developed. Editors are selecting key articles for immediate free access. Overall prices charged by scientific societies are a small fraction of that charged by for-profit publishers. Yet a portion of subscription fees should go to support the science disciplines as a whole, which is what transfer of the net from publications in support of other STEM activities accomplishes. There is no free lunch. In the end our concern is that scientific societies, with all of their activities in support of STEM, remain viable and healthy.