Hughes afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

From Peter Suber, blogging Alex Palazzo

Alex Palazzo, JCB to HHMI: Why did you sell out to Elsevier? The Daily Transcript, July 18, 2007. Excerpt:

Yesterday…I came across a commentary by Mike Rossner and Ira Mellman, the two big guys at the Journal of Cell Biology. The commentary concerns the resolution of a year long fight between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Elsevier. To force the hand of the publishers and to support open access, HHMI instituted a new policy – they would evaluate prospective and continuing HHMI investigators based on published manuscripts that were freely accessible within 6 months of the publication date. In other words, HHMI evaluators could not consider any manuscript that was published in a journal like Cell, whose policy is to allow open access of manuscripts only after 12 months. Since Elsevier is one of the major publishing companies that has a >12month wait period, and since Elsevier owns Cell, one of the premiere journals, this action by HHMI was seen by some as a clash between these two institutions.
Recently HHMI and Elsevier came to a compromise, in that the former would pay the latter 1,500$ per manuscript that came from an HHMI investigator. In exchange, Elsevier would allow free access to these publications via PubMed Central within the 6 month waiting period. So is this a victory for open access? Not really….
[Here]…is the editorial from the June 18th edition of JCB:

How the rich get richer. HHMI will bestow monetary rewards on a commercial publisher in return for the type of public access already provided by many nonprofit publishers….Two problems with this deal immediately come to mind. First, there is a clear potential for conflict of interest when a publisher stands to benefit financially by publishing papers from a particular organization. Second, and even more seriously, this action by HHMI undermines the effort to persuade commercial publishers to make their content public after a short delay, by rewarding them for not doing so….
For many years The Rockefeller University Press and many other nonprofit publishers have released all of their content to the public after only six months, and have proven that such a policy does not reduce subscription revenues. We thus provide all authors with a free service for which HHMI will now pay Elsevier. Commercial publishers should need no financial incentive to provide this service to the scientific research community, on whom they rely for their content, their quality control, their subscribers, and for the patronage of their advertisers. Instead, Elsevier has accepted a deal that does a disservice to that community by increasing publication costs and thus further reducing the funds available for research.
HHMI has rewarded Elsevier for their steadfast refusal to release their content by further enhancing their already highly profitable business model….It is unfortunate that HHMI has forfeited its substantial bargaining power in a deal that represents a setback to the mission of public access….

    PS: Comment. Exactly. See my similar evaluation in the April issue of SOAN.

PMR: I share this sadness and add brief comments why it is even worse:

  • The quality of “open/free/author” “access/choice/science” created by publishers is a disgrace. There is no effort at providing anything that an author could feel pleased with.
  • The final “product” is hardly ever “Open Access” in the full BBB sense. Readers (that quaint archaic word for end-users) have few rights – they cannot text-mine, extract data, etc. At the very least the funders shoudl get total OA for their contribution. In many cases they are simply paying for a marginal difference in visibility to the other papers on the site.
  • It gives the impression that HHMI either doesn’t care, or doesn’t understand the issues. Or is overwhelmed by corporate pressure of FUD or enticements. The really sad thing is that it makes it so much more difficult for the real pioneers such as Wellcome trust who have publicly fought this all the way – insisting on full Open Access and taking access to data seriously
  • It suggests that all that matters is some fuzzy visual access to research. Scientists need proper access to data. They need robots extracting it. (Of course if the publisher had any pfretensions to live in the 21st century they would actually require authors to publish their data. I shall return to this.
  • and there is just a general feeling of mess. With Wellcome, and the NIH, we had a united, simple, message. Full Open Access. Proper value for money.

But the days of darkness are limited. Not through the vapid efforts of HHMI, but because the publishers – who are now the problem – will be swept away by the next information revolution which, in their resistance of the natural pressures for change, will condemn most of them to oblivion in a decade. And there is nothing they can do to stop it. Adapt or die.

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