The chickens are finally coming home to roost. The price-gouging practices of many academic journals, a practice I’ve often decried here, have driven one large and important university to take action. According to the webpage of the University of California at San Franciso (UCSF), that university will henceforth constrain all of its faculty and academic employees to publish in journals whose contents are freely and immediately available to anyone. It has always galled me that although the taxpayers (whose hard-earned dollars are distributed to scientists largely through the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health) fund our work, scientific journals can nevertheless make taxpayers cough up large sums to view the results of that research. That’s unconscionable by anyone’s lights.
“Our primary motivation is to make our research available to anyone who is interested in it, whether they are members of the general public or scientists without costly subscriptions to journals,” said Richard A. Schneider, PhD, chair of the UCSF Academic Senate Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication, who spearheaded the initiative at UCSF. “The decision is a huge step forward in eliminating barriers to scientific research,” he said. “By opening the currently closed system, this policy will fuel innovation and discovery, and give the taxpaying public free access to oversee their investments in research.”
UCSF is the nation’s largest public recipient of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), receiving 1,056 grants last year, valued at $532.8 million. Research from those and other grants leads to more than 4,500 scientific papers each year in highly regarded, peer-reviewed scientific journals, but the majority of those papers are only available to subscribers who pay ever-increasing fees to the journals. The 10-campus University of California (UC) system spends close to $40 million each year to buy access to journals.
. . . The new policy requires UCSF faculty to make each of their articles freely available immediately through an open-access repository, and thus accessible to the public through search engines such as Google Scholar. Articles will be deposited in a UC repository, other national open-access repositories such as the NIH-sponsored PubMed Central, or published as open-access publications. They will then be available to be read, downloaded, mined, or distributed without barriers.
There does, however, seem to be one loophole:
The UCSF policy gives the university a nonexclusive license to distribute any peer-reviewed articles that will also be published in scientific or medical journals. Researchers are able to “opt out” if they want to publish in a certain journal but find that the publisher is unwilling to comply with the UCSF policy. “The hope,” said Schneider, “is that faculty will think twice about where they publish, and choose to publish in journals that support the goals of the policy.”
So much for forcing Science or Nature to stop charging exorbitant sums to view their papers!
I have another complaint not addressed by this policy: some journals allow scientists to withhold the raw data analyzed in their papers for long periods (over a year) so that other researchers can’t “mine” it and use that data to generate their own papers. The idea is that one’s data is proprietary, and one should have exclusive use of it for a long period of time. This, too, I find unconscionable. The essence of science is that other workers must be able to repeat your results before those results become credible in the research community. You can’t do that if someone publishes an analysis and then refuses to give you the data on which that analysis is based. The selfish desire to “own” datasets, so you can generate lots of papers from them without other scientists being able to peek at the data, is inimical to the progress of science. In my view, every bit of data on which a published paper is based must be available immediately to any scientist who wants to see it.