Why would one decide to publish a journal on public health? It sound like a rhetorical question, but it may be more serious than we think. The obvious answer is to improve the health of the public. But if that really is the goal, a publisher in public health would need to try to reach the largest audience of the public that was possible. So a recent announcement from one prominent public health publisher casts doubt on that intent, and the purpose of the journal overall.
The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) has been publishing for 102 years, and has an impact factor of 3.9. It is ranked by Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge (formerly ISI Web of Knowledge) as having the third greatest impact in its category. This is hardly the picture one thinks of if one follows the recent discussion of predatory journal publishers. Yet its public access policies have always been very restrictive, and they are about to get more so, in a way that makes “predatory” exactly the right word.
At the moment, AJPH, which is published by the American Public Health Association (APHA), is listed by the SHERPA RoMEO database as a “white” publisher, which means that authors are not allowed to self-archive either a pre-print or a post-print of their articles. From the journal’s own web site we learn that the only rights authors retain if they publish in AJPH are the rights to use their own work in dissertations, theses, books or other journal articles they are writing “at no charge.” And even the exercise of those “retained” rights apparently requires a formal permission request from APHA.
Most significantly, from the perspective of promoting public health, AJPH makes articles open access only under two conditions—if an open access fee of $2,500 is paid, or on the journal’s own website after two years. The public is told that linking to those two-year-old open access articles is permitted “for educational purposes,” as if APHA believes it can prevent linking for other purposes to material it makes openly accessible.
From these policies as they stand, we should be able to discern that profit is more important than fostering public health to the Association. But even with that context as preparation, the message they sent to authors late last month was a shock. Those authors who did not pay for immediate open access believed, at the time they published, that their articles would be fully accessible after two years. But on June 1, the APHA is changing the rules, according to an email from their Publications Editor. The window for open access will be closed much further—only articles that are ten years old or older will be open access. The American Journal of Public Health has decided that the public deserves access to only decade-old materials it has published, which is a useless gesture, given the pace of health-related progress.
If there is a public health-related justification for this change in policy, I can’t think of what it could be. I emailed the Publications Editor asking for comment or an explanation, but received no answer. What his original email does suggest, however, is that there is a clear motive to increase profits behind this move. Authors who were informed of the change were also told that, if they still wanted public access to their articles in spite of the APHA having slammed the public access window closed, they could buy such access for the “steeply discounted rate of $1,000 per article.”
So it seems clear that authors who have already published with APHA over the past decade are being treated as cash cows that can be milked for additional funds—“pay up or the public loses the benefit of access to your work in public health.” And eight years of health-related information is clawed back out of public hands (except for those articles also available by federal mandate in PubMed Central). I have sometimes complained about lists of predatory open access journals because I think the criteria used are not always the right ones. But if any publishing practice can be viewed purely as an attempt to exploit open access in order to extract money from authors while offering little added benefit, this change in policy is such a practice.
I take three lessons from this remarkably mercenary and regressive step by the APHA.
First, impact factors are deceptive, because they measure only a tiny slice of true impact. For a journal in public health, the most obvious impact would be on the public and on those who provide health services to the public. But it is this audience that will be most obviously affected by the removal of articles from public access. On the other hand, this change will almost certainly not have any negative impact on the impact factor, which only measures citations of AJPH in other journals. So the association will continue to be able to brag about its impact factor while reducing its actual ability to influence public health. All for the purpose of drinking from a new revenue stream.
Second, this announcement illustrates the urgent need for the implementation of the White House directive on public access to federally-funded research and for passage of the FASTR Act—Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, now pending in Congress as H.R. 708 and S. 350. These are initiatives to require that the public have access to the articles that grow out of research funded by taxpayer money. Publishers often express opposition to such measures for a variety of reasons, but often one of those reasons is the claim that they, the publishers, are making research articles adequately available without being compelled to do so. But with the APHA we have a “non-profit” society publisher (they are a 501(c)3 entity and will happily take your donations) that is pulling back on public access in the quest for new profits. The only articles they cannot close up fully are those in other databases, because of funder mandates. So the benefits of open access, especially in a field as important as public health, cannot be entrusted to groups such as this (much less to publishers who are more open about profit motives). We have here a clear and compelling lesson that mandates must be employed to promote science and the public welfare.
Finally, we should learn from the negative example that the AJPH has offered and fight for the shortest possible embargo periods for all public access mandates. A ten-year embargo in public health is simply absurd, and it should remind us that not only must we require public access, but we should require it at a point where the taxpayer-funded research can still do some good. The standard publication process is already very slow, so a one-year embargo is really an 18- to 24-month delay. There simply is no excuse for embargos of more than six months. Publishers might tell us that they need a longer period of exclusivity, but the AJPH illustrates clearly and painfully that this is a “give them an inch and they will take a mile” proposition. Once we compromise on the basic principle that the public deserves access to research they have funded and that is intended to create a public good, we will lose that principle entirely, as the window through which citizens can peek gets closed further and further.
It should be painfully clear, thanks to the American Journal of Public Health, that the only group we can really trust to have custody over public health research and information is the public itself.