Accessible Research For All, By All- The Government, State, Universities and NGO's

A Wall Street Journal article by Bernard Wysocki Jr. (May 23, 2005) WSJ front page (log-in required) talks about research journals and the growing trend among researchers to publish via the web. He also discusses universities' increasing resistance to paying the high institutional subscription costs of academic journals. It's an interesting article, though the title; "Scholarly Journals' Premier Status Is Diluted by the Web", is somewhat misleading.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the median expenditure of periodicals per academic institution has risen from a little over one million dollars per institution in 1986, to over five million dollars per institution in 2003, in a global academic publishing market that is currently about five billion dollars per year. The article focuses on various researcher and institutional efforts to change the face of academic publishing, especially at the University of California (specifically the Berkeley campus). The 10 campus UC system spends about 30 million dollars a year on periodicals. According to the article, the University has recently balked at subscription rates and negotiated lower rates for some journals in what is apparently a precedent setting coup.

At the same time, competing publishing models are emerging. Michael Eisen, whose lab focuses on gene expression in development, has co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLos), with Harold Varmus of Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. The non-profit on-line publisher will compete with the mainstream research journals and give access to publications for free. There are three online PLoS Journals so far, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Genetics, and PLoS Pathogens.

On-line research publishing is certainly not new, but is increasingly becoming a preferable publishing model. Cornell produces a physics publishing database called ArXiv that has published over 100,000 articles (primarily physics research) since 1991. UC Davis has augmented the Cornell site with a front end for math articles. The Cornell site has a more utilitarian sensibility then PLoS, which has more of a corporate feel. With the look of PLoS and the staff involvement it's hard to avoid wondering about the exact business model. Will it be subscriber funded plus grants...will it be grant funded? Will there be paid advertising? ArXiv has a mix of funding.

The costs for articles in print publications can run three to ten thousand dollars per article, according to the WSJ, and therefore "to experienced publishers, much of the open access talk seems naive." However ArXiv has found that electronic communication of research is efficient and effective compared to traditional publishing. In a talk to Unesco in 1996, Paul Ginsparg, physicist at Cornell, laid out Cornell's experience with electronic publishing and left no doubt as to the future of print publishing:

"A major lesson we learn is that the current model of funding publishing companies through research libraries (in turn funded by overhead on research grants) is unlikely to survive in the electronic realm. It is premised on a paper medium that was difficult to produce, difficult to distribute, difficult to archive, and difficult to duplicate -- a medium that hence required numerous local redistribution points in the form of research libraries. The electronic medium shares none of these features and thus naturally facilitates large scale disintermediation, with the resulting communication of research information both more efficient and more cost-effective....The essential question at this point is not *whether* the scientific research literature will migrate to fully electronic dissemination, but rather *how quickly* this transition will take place now that all of the requisite tools are on-line."

As much as print publishers raise their eyebrows and cast doubt around there is great interest on the part of potential on-line publishers. UC Berkeley has started it's own database and encouraged researchers to deposit research there. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) proposed last year that all NIH grant money recipients (who comprise a large percent of bioscience and medical researchers) archive their articles in its database, however after protests from various publishers the NIH made the program voluntarily. Acronym Required reported here that the Dutch government also started a publicly accessible database of research for its nations researchers. Everyone has interests in free research accessibility, the researchers and public, governments who fund research, less developed countries, universities who benefit from the notoriety, as well as non-profits who propose to vie with the publishers. Although publishers claim that giving away content isn't a viable business model it is certainly gathering momentum and it will be interesting to watch the realm of free academic content develop. Physics- where electronic communication is dominant- is charting a path for other fields. For now, peer reviewed print research journals continue to reign.

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