November 25, 2017

Today's the Last Day: Make the Case for Open Access | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

The time to send messages to the White House ended January 21

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

Have you told the White House what you think about open access to publicly funded research? The Office of Science and Technology Policy has been accepting comments for weeks now, but the window of opportunity to add your thoughts closes today.

You haven’t commented yet? Do it now. Don’t worry. I’ll wait for you.

Okay, now that you’re back, I want to confess that there’s a lot involved that I don’t personally understand: the technical requirements, the need for uniformity, the way the deposits should work—I don’t have opinions on the fine points. What I do believe, though, is that the research funded by our tax dollars is important because it’s a public good. We wouldn’t be funding it with public dollars otherwise. It’s good for academic science, but it’s good for industry, too. (See also what ALA/ACRL and ARL have to say.)

Sharing science
My son is a physics postdoc at the Argonne National Laboratory. He does things with our tax dollars that I couldn’t begin to explain, but I do get that what he does may end up improving batteries that will be sold in products that we’ll be using—laptops, cars, you name it. It’s good for consumers. It’s good for business. And it’s especially good for pushing forward the frontiers of what we know about materials at a very fundamental level. (I mean, he fires photons at stuff to see what happens. That’s pretty basic.)

What if students or faculty at my college need to read up on the latest research published by the people whose synchrotron is funded by our taxes? Well, they’re probably in luck. Physicists are big on sharing. They’ve been doing it for years, through arXiv and by making their own society publications open access friendly. Not everything is available, of course, but quite a lot is. They still publish massive amounts of research, but somehow they feel their interest in supporting a quality publishing operation is not incompatible with fast and free dissemination of results.  

Not on the same page
Other science disciplines taught at my campus aren’t quite as open. In biology, there are myriad worthy societies that rely on earnings from library subscriptions, and there are even more commercially-published journals that rank high in importance. Neuroscience is an exciting concentration that is attracting a lot of students but, oy, it’s expensive. Like physics, chemistry has a major society that represents many branches of the field, but its journals are pricey and the logic of open access is not wired into the discipline as it is in physics.

We also pay a lot just to find out what we don’t have. Our most expensive specialized databases are those covering chemistry and mathematics literature. The vast majority of what these tools index is published in journals we can’t afford, but, if we expect our faculty to be active scholars (and we do), there’s really no alternative. We have to hope that the land grant university up the road whose library we depend on will have enough tax-supported funding to provide access to the fair-use articles we can obtain, and that we’ll be able to afford copyright fees for the rest. For this to work, somebody, somewhere, has to buy a subscription.

Many small colleges like mine are going straight to paying commercial publishers for articles at point of need, and they’re saving a lot of money on subscriptions. But this means that, by design, there is no public asset to explore, even on a licensed, temporary basis. Scientific research is thus a disposable unit purchased for individuals, a solution that still costs libraries thousands of dollars per year. That’s a savings that comes at a steep cost.

Whose crisis?
This situation, of course, is often mistakenly called “the serials crisis.” It might be more accurate to call it the humanities crisis, because both my library and the research university we count on have less money for books, which are the lifeblood of many humanities disciplines. We know we have to pay fees for journal articles, because the only way we share them is by copying. Thanks to the first sale doctrine, we can share a book until it falls apart—and it’s politically a lot easier to not buy a book than it is to cancel a journal or database subscription.

Here’s another thing: it has always seemed peculiar to me that the “5/5 rule” CONTU guideline for the interlibrary loan (ILL) of articles is a flat rate of five articles, published within the most recent five years, regardless of the size of a journal. We can get five articles from a science journal that publishes 1000 short articles a year—and five articles from a humanities journal that publishes 20 long articles a year. That doesn’t seem right, but such are the peculiar metrics of copyright compromises. It’s considered fair use to request by ILL some 20 percent of the humanities journal before paying copyright fees (which tend to be very affordable, anyway) but only one half of one percent of the big science journal, for which copyright fees typically cost the price of a scholarly trade paperback in the humanities. No wonder we’re buying fewer books.

Science in the public interest
We have a long way to go before we sort out the economics of publishing in a digital world. Book publishers are sweating over when to release ebooks, and the newspaper of record is poised to start charging frequent flyers.

But this one is a no-brainer. We believe science is valuable enough that we pour public funding into it. We need to make sure that the results of that funding helps advance our knowledge of the physical and natural world, and that won’t happen if libraries can no longer afford it. Let’s make sure our investment pays off—for the public good.

The White House wants to hear from us. Add your comments to the open forum today.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books this year.

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