Saturday, September 2, 2006

Open Access in Scientific Publishing: Where are the land-grants?

Wired in their September issue has a good overview of what's happening in the world of scientific publishing, and the changes beginning to occur in the peer-review process. If you're wanting a good read on the issue this is a good place to start. Within the academy peer-review is a hotly debated topic, but the battle that people should care the most about is the one brewing over open access. One of the organizations leading the way in this regard is the Public Library of Science (PLoS). They have a straight forward mission:

PLoS is a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource.

Works for me! I especially like their core principles. This one in particular spoke to me:

Science as a public resource. Our mission of building a public library of science includes not only providing unrestricted access to scientific research ideas and discoveries, but developing tools and materials to engage the interest and imagination of the public and helping non-scientists to understand and enjoy scientific discoveries and the scientific process.

That sounds very compatible with the mission of the land-grant university with their democratic mandate for openness, accessibility, and service to people....

It‘s important to point out who provides the bulk of the funding for the research being conducted at our nation‘s land-grant universities:

* Further evidence of the importance of NASULGC institutions to the nation‘s research capacity comes from data on individual federal agencies‘ obligations for science and engineering. In fiscal 2002, for example, NASULGC members received:

  • 83% of the funds obligated by the Department of Agriculture for such activities;
  • 71% of the funds obligated by the Environmental Protection Agency;
  • 55% of those from the Department of Energy;
  • 62% of those from the National Science Foundation;
  • 51% of those from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration;
  • 41% of those from the National Institutes of Health;
  • The funds obligated by these and other agencies to NASULGC members totaled more than $10 billion.

Yep, it‘s the taxpayer who pays for this research. So let‘s follow the money. The taxpayer gives a portion of their hard-earned income to the federal government. The federal government gives it to the universities to conduct research on the public‘s behalf. The scientists do their research, and document their discoveries. They give their work to journals for publishing. Then, the public university libraries turn right around and buy back their own researchers‘ published results using more taxpayer dollars. Finally, it gets “locked-up” in the academic libraries and only a priviledged few get access. Lovely!

Michael Eisen from UC Berkely gave a great overview at Wikimania on the current mess that is scientific publishing:

But there are many costs of the old system. Only the wealthiest institutions get anywhere close to being able to access to [sic] all journals. Even at Berkeley, there are lots of things I want to access as part of my research that I can't get. I have to use a password to the Stanford system! And it's a hundred times worse for my colleagues at smaller institutions. And the general public gets hardly anything. If you find yourself with an obscure disease, you don't have access to anything. And scientists in the developing world face similar problems. I have a lot of colleagues in Argentina who have to get me to send them PDFs of things they need. Scientists and the public are being denied a huge tool in driving science forward.

You would think that land-grant universities, with their mission, would be at the forefront of innovation and leading the open-access movement. That they would be working diligently on behalf of the people to ensure access to the world‘s scientific literature. Well, you‘d be wrong.

A glance at the institutional membership of PLoS shows the following land-grants:


  • University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

  • University of California: Berkeley, Davis, Riverside

  • Cornell University

  • Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Medical Library

  • University of Maryland, College Park

  • University of Massachusetts

  • University of Minnesota

  • North Carolina State University

  • Ohio State University

  • Oklahoma State University

  • Oregon State University

  • University of Tennessee

  • Texas A&M University

  • Utah State University

  • University of Wisconsin, Madison

These universities are to be commended for their support. I‘m also pleased to see my own institution on the list. That there are only 15 of 105 land-grants is a tad disturbing, however.

Why should institutions be supporting this effort?

"The decision to join PLoS," noted Beverlee French on behalf of the University of California, "reflects our unanimous resolve to address the unsustainable economics of current scholarly publishing by directing some of our scarce dollars away from overpriced journals and towards innovation."

Well said!

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