Publicly funded research for a price

The Journal of the American Medical Association


Kai Ryssdal: A lot of the scientific research that goes on in this country is really expensive. And, as it happens, a lot of it is publicly funded. But when taxpayers want to read a particular study that has been paid for with their money, they have to pay again to read about it in, say, The New England Journal of Medicine.

Congress is about to take up a bill that would help companies that publish those kinds of journals protect their business models. But it would also limit general access to publicly funded research. Janet Babin reports now from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.

JANET BABIN: People who grew up with the Internet expect information to be free. That's what 21-year-old Josh Sommer thought.

In 2006 he was a typical college freshman. Studying environmental engineering, hanging out, making new friends. Suddenly, he started to get severe headaches. He had a series of routine tests.

Josh Sommer: End up having an MRI and being told that I have a mass right in the very center of my head, entwined with critical arteries, in one of the most difficult locations to operate on.

The cancer Josh has is called Chordoma. It's a rare disease with a low survival rate. Even doctors don't know much about it. So Josh threw himself into Chordoma research. He Googled the disease to find out all he could about it, but kept hitting roadblocks.

Sommer: I'd find an abstract, and I'd click on it. And oh, you have to pay $60 to read this article. Oh, you have to pay $40 to read this article. I mean, I have this disease, I want to know about it.

Journal subscriptions -- like the Journal of the American Medical Association -- can cost thousands of dollars each year. With universities and libraries trimming budgets, they can't afford all of them either.

What Josh needed was free access to the research online.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health unlocked the gates on a lot of research. Through its Web portal called PubMed Central, you can now search research papers for any disease scientists are studying with public funds. It's an estimated 80,000 articles a year.

Duke University law professor James Boyle says open access is only fair.

James Boyle: Why would you possibly say that when the taxpayers funded something, then the public can't get to read it afterwards without paying again?

Well, you might say it if you were a publisher. Martin Frank is executive director of the American Physiological Society. The nonprofit group publishes more than a dozen medical journals.

Martin Frank: The question is whether or not the NIH policy compromises the ability for a publisher to recover the inherent costs of producing a product.

The publishing industry argues the NIH policy strains their budgets. Frank says subscription sales are slipping, and the cost to edit and peer review each article is rising. He and other publishers support a proposed law that would reverse the NIH open-access policy. It's called the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act.

Professor Boyle, at Duke, says the law would not only lock out patients, but also researchers.

Boyle: The Web works great for porn or for shoes, or for flirting on social networks. But it doesn't work really well for science. We haven't done for science what we did on the rest of the Web, which is basically to have this open Web with everything linked together.

Increasingly, open access to research is demanded, even by the academics creating the content. Laura Janneck is a med student at Case Western, and studies public health at Harvard. She says journal publishers need to change their business model.

Laura Janneck: I mean this is how capitalism works, right? The strong companies are the ones who can adapt to the changing environment, and you can't prevent information technology from progressing as it is.

Publishers might change their business model by making authors pay to have their own articles published. But some researchers might try to cover those fees with public funds. So an author-pays model could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run, than if they just paid to see the articles they're interested in.

In Durham, N.C., I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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I have been publishing since 1980s in biomedical field. One thing that bothers me is increasing cost of publication in scientific journals, while the cost of printing in general has come down substantially in the market due to advanced and cheaper technology. Similarly, the cost of subscription to scientific journals is also increasing to such an extent that many libraries in developing countries cannot afford them. Again the cost of subscription to non-scientific journals or magazines has been decreasing substantially. This disparity is not due to the advertisements inserted into the non-scientific publications, as many scientific journals also carry a lot of advertisements to generate extra revenue. These two factors - increasing cost of publication and cost of subscription - are responsible for the creation of "segment zero" in the publication market - the so called open access and free journals. The scientific publication market is not yet matured completely as compared to market for other publications. With increasing competition from the web-based open access journals, which are also recruiting highly qualified editorial board members and following stringent review process, and attaining increasingly higher impact factors, the market may mature and reach a new Nash equilibrium. The sign of any matured market is low prices due to healthy competition. That is bound to happen soon in publication market as well.

I am a biomedical researcher who publishes frequently in a wide range of scientific journals and am supported by NIH grants. I am also an active member of the American Physiological Society and the American Heart Association, two major non-profit publishers in my area of cardiovascular research. First of all, I strongly believe that the presumed damage due to lack of open access is grossly over-stated.

This is a very complicated issue and it is so easy for those who have not studied the issue in depth to side with the open access movement. While I fully understand that communicating results in a timely fashion is critical, moving to immediate open access would result in publishers immediately losing subscription revenue and put many out of business. This would be particularly difficult for the many non-profit publishers.

While one could then argue that we need a new business model, moving the cost from the libraries (subscriptions) onto the author would still result in the taxpayer paying, but the majority of the financing required for publishing would then have to come from research dollars and would severely thwart the ability of researchers to publish, not to mention how negatively this would affect researchers in poorer countries. The fact is, the actual cost of publishing is far more than the current page charges that authors already pay. Furthermore, a large amount of scientific publishing is being done by non-profit organizations such as the American Physiological Society, American Chemical Society, etc. which depend on publishing revenue to sponsor educational programs, scientific conferences, etc. This would all go away without subscription revenue.

The implication here is that taxpayer dollars should not go to organizations that depend on making money. This is not realistic. Billions (now trillions) of taxpayer dollars go to private institutions that would not survive without a profit margin. If we are going to argue that all scientific publishers are just being greedy, then there is a clear lack of understanding of how scientific publishing works. The open access movement threatens the integrity of scientific peer review. Without this, science will suffer.

Finally, there is nothing stopping any law abiding citizen from walking into our library and access all the scientific literature that I have. The only limitation is that you cannot do it at home in the comfort of your pajamas.

I am a chemist and computer scientist who, for the first 15 years of post-Ph.D. employment, has had the benefit of working for major multinational chemical and scientific instrument companies where I had access to almost any journal I needed for my research.

Since 1997, I have owned a very small company that produces state-of-the-art software for scientific data analysis. To remain competent and relevant in this field, I need access to the technical literature. Unfortunately, as a small company, I can't afford to subscribe to most of the journals I need, and must restrict my selection to just a handful of the less expensive ones.

The PLoS, the BMC, and other open-source publications have been great for me, and the number and quality of articles published through such venues continues to increase. However, there is still too much of the literature that is only available through for-profit publishers.

The NIH policy has been great for individuals and small companies like mine. For the minor inconvenience of a six-month delay, I have access to all that I can't otherwise afford. Taking that away would send me back to begging authors for reprints.

To those who think that the solution is to make all journals electronic-only: I have digital subscriptions to two "must-have" journals in my field. I have to pay nearly as much for these as I would for the print version. The "gotcha" is this: if I let my subscription expire, that's it, I'm totally cut off, even from articles published in those years when I -did- subscribe. If I had a print subscription, I could just pull the volume off the shelf and look up the article; with digital only, I'm stuck.

And with digital-only subscriptions, there's no journal that I know of that will let you download and save an entire issue; you have to do it article by article by article.

My Congressional representatives will soon find out that I consider a vote for this bill to be a vote to put me out of a job, and if they vote in favor, I'll more than happy to return the favor at the next election.

I would like to congratulate Marketplace for reporting on an issue that has, until now, received very little press. I believe that publicly funded research should be openly accessible. This means that all technical reports, journal articles and Congressional Research Service reports should be openly accessible. Journal publishers, especially the non-profits should have exclusive rights only for a short period of time (6 months to a year) after which all of the research should be openly accessible. An interesting article on a related topic, bundling of journals by major publishers, titled A challenge to Goliath, is available in the Journal of Experimental Medicine at: http://jem.rupress.org/cgi/content/full/jem.20090836v1. Keep up the good work!

I was very surprised that this story made NO mention of the Public Library of Science, also known as PLoS (http://www.plos.org/) There is a time and place for big money making, but health care shouldn't be one of them.

Yes, PLEASE use your local public or community college library! That way everyone has access and everyone gets paid. Ms Babin, this should have been mentioned in your article!

The scholarly journal publishing industry went through a startling transformation over the past 20 years, moving from a large number of publishers to an oligopoly dominated by 3 or 4 megapublishers. As any student of economics would expect, the result was much higher prices, very high profitablility for those publishers, and low rates of technological innovation. Innovation in scholarly publishing today is mostly in the non-profit sector, particularly in open access journals and in university efforts to make their own research widely and freely available through institutional and disciplinary repositories (e.g. arXiv or my own university's Scholars' Bank). The Conyers bill would go a long way towards killing that innovation.

Kudos to NPR and Marketplace for getting this issue out in front of the public. As Joanne Schneider points out, the real cost of production is borne by the funding agencies and especially the universities. Richard Flagan's analogy about the labels on a wine bottle helps bring this home. At this point in time, research and scholarship in almost every field is "born digital," institutions can easily host repositories of their own (here's a place to start: http://www.oaister.org/), so researchers no longer need publishers to get their content out to the world. So here's a blunt question -- in the current system of scholarly communications, what is the *real* added value of an expensive journal beyond branding for purposes of peer review, tenure, and promotion? Until the academic community develops more sustainable ways to organize the peer review process, every faculty member and the universities themselves will remain victims of this captive market.

I'd like to take Todd Puccio's argument above a step further--the problem may not be where one can gain access to scientific journals, because access alone does not guarantee comprehension. I think the real problem of access is due to the sad state of science journalism, that is, not just access to the words in an article, but access to understanding that content. If Josh Sommers instead had access to coverage of these particular articles by a doctor or a well trained journalist, his understanding of the studies would increase as his time invested in reading incomprehensible medical jargon decreased (and it's not true that a well written and concise article about any rare disease wouldn't get any coverage... this is the reason House is so popular.)

There are so few outlets for science journalism--when newspapers go through tough times, science and tech sections are at the top of the cut list. Outlets are decreasing, but the public is still demanding scientific information, and now it has to go directly to the source.

I'd suggest that the publishers themselves could become the "science journalists" we need to help us understand their complex material. This type of reporting would be value-added content (which subscription-based publishers love to brag that they already provide), providing actual incentive to pay for subscriptions, and the value-added journalistic/editorial content would remain free, of course.

The biggest issue with this scheme is trust. To build trust with a publisher's journalism/reporting (no hyperbole, jargon, etc), public interaction with this content becomes imperative: the public could review and grade pieces en masse, providing something akin to voting up or down articles on Digg or Reddit.

Government funds research as a matter of principle in the general interest of society. The use of that research is a separate concern that should not be discharged by a wildly baseless assumption of liberty. Despite the popular notions referred to in the piece, there is in fact no broad precedent for unlimited public access to the fruits of research funded in part by taxpayer dollars, and for good reason.

For the sake of illustration, imagine we were talking about The National Endowment for the Arts. Would anyone assume that an artist who learns a technique while working on a grant project would then forfeit all rights to future works based on that technique? Would we require museums to forgo admission fees while this work was presenting their galleries? We assume that a society of better artists and better museums contributes to the common good. The same general assumption gives cause to the public funding of science. There is however, no general assumption as to the use of the findings. Just as we acknowledge that the conduct of research leads to standards for and the regulation of that work, so too should thoughtful considerations be applied to its outcomes. In both the conduct of the research and separately in its dissemination, qualifications, regulations, and standards of precedent must be exercised.

The N.I.H. should be applauded for their effort to reflect democratic principles in an age when those principles were in jeopardy. However, the illusory moral imperative for unfettered access to all information in all cases is easily dissected. Yes, corporate interests have used undue influence and become all too adept at laying off costs that should be borne by them as a function of their business. But, this concern can be addressed by regulation. And, as pointed out by previous comments, for the young man in the story we have a measured solution as well, the library.


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