Would the NIH policy destroy the ACS?

Rich Apodaca, a founder member of the Blue Obelisk, is concerned that the NIH policy on Open Access would put the American Chemical Society out of business. He’s typical of chemists who see ACS journals as the natural place to publish and it’s important that he gets a balanced answer. I’ll give mine but I’d like those more authoritative to help, either on this blog or pointing him to their sources.

Peter, I know there’s been a lot of back and forth on this, but I’ve seen very little in the way of hard data on the subject. Have you?

For example, since the ACS appears to be one of the main opponents of the NIH policy, where can we find a breakdown of the percentage of papers that would be eligible for the mandatory program currently and retroactively? Is it 10%? 20%? 50%? What if you throw NSF funding in there as well?

How do those figures break down by journal?

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see a very dim future indeed for a subscription-oriented journal in which 75% of its content needs to released for free. 10% may not make a dent at all.

I think most chemists would respond rationally to the idea that their favorite grant-producing journal of choice would stand a real chance of going belly up under the NIH policy, but only when presented with the data to back it up.

PMR: Firstly it’s important to realise that Open Access is primarily a business model, and does not affect the quality or volume of publications. Papers are still peer reviewed to the same level and quality. If Rich sees the ACS journals as their favorite grant-producing engines (and that in itself is a commentary on today’s publication world) there is no a priori reason why that should change. The ghastly impact factor will still continue, driven by citations and it doesn’t matter whether the journal is Open or Closed. Some proponents of Open Access claim that it increases citations, so that should be a positive measure. There are enough anecdotal studies that support this view – it’s not overwhelmingly convincing and, of course, there’s no data in chemistry as there are no significant Open Access journals. And, if it’s already seen by chemists (as I have heard) that the only thing that matters in their career is to publish in ACS journals, then the battle has already been won and Impact factors are secondary.

Secondarily, and often misrepresented by oponents of OA, OA does not mean that there is less income. Open Access journals charge authors and Wellcome has pioneered the strategy that funders pay (and I’d prefer the term funder-pays). The full Open Access model can be profitable, as shown by Biomed Central which has been bought by Springer – and presumably that is a business decision based on being profitable. It is, however, extremely difficult to get good financial figures and many of these are guesses. OA advocates will argue that in a full OA economy the income will come from authors, supported by funders. Openents argue that many sectors, such as industry, will get a free ride and this will kill the market. A good example of low-cost Open Access is shown by the Int. Union of Crystallography’s Acta Crystallographica E, which charges a modest fee (ca 150 GBP IIRC) to authors, but this is a specialist data-rich journal and some of the costs will be lower. At the other end many publishers charge ca 3000 USD for Open Access publications and I think this is about the level of the ACS (it depends on whether your are a member, etc.)

Part of the problem is the transitional period. Ironically during this, conventional Closed journals (now “hybrids”) may even be better off. They will have a mixture of Open and Closed articles and I doubt that many subscribers would cancel subscriptions if, say, 50% of articles were Closed and 50% Open. The journal would be paid twice, once by authors and once by subscribers. Some campaigners have argued that this should lead to a reduction in suscriptions and some publishers have repied that they will do so, but it’s mired by the continued rise in journal prices and the secrecy on income. One problem is that there is no indication of what is a fair price for authors – and there are indications that some commercial OA publishers are jumping on the bandwagon and charging high prices for poor quality journals.

Note that this hybrid publication already exists for most publishers including the ACS and this already fulfills the NIH guidelines. You do the research, you pay an author/funder fee, and the journal publishes your paper Openly. The argument is simply about where the money comes from. Wellcome will pay this willingly. So if you are funded by Wellcome there should be no problem for author, ACS or anyone else. The difficulty may come with funders who don’t pay and institutions that won’t support authors.

So, in conclusion, this is about economics where the proponents hide the facts and the arguments can be highly speculative (“if you do/not do X, then Y would/not happen”). That’s one reason why the Blue Obelisk does not specifically advocate Open Access, but does advocate Open Data (the requirement that all the scientific data associated with an experiment should be available to the world).

But I hope this will be answered more authoritatively by others. If you do this by comments here please add links.

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7 Responses to Would the NIH policy destroy the ACS?

  1. DrZZ says:

    I should probably be a little more up on the details, but I’m pretty sure the question is based on a misunderstanding of what the policy. I’m almost certain that there is no direct barrier to ACS charging as much as it wants for access to articles. The only thing the policy requires is that NIH funded authors deposit a copy of the final manuscript (not even the nicely formatted journal article ) in a public repository. That certainly breaks the journal’s monopoly on access to the essential information (which of course the journal had no part in creating) and that would limit the amount people would pay for simple access, but it doesn’t stop the journal from charging as much as it can get away with for any and all value that it adds (formatting, convenience, abstracting, search tools, search analysis and display, etc.). If a journal doesn’t add enough value to remain in business, it seems hard to come up a convincing rationale for why taxpayers should subsidize it.

  2. Robert Kiley says:

    ACS Open Choice papers are now being deposited in PMC, with a full re-use OA licence.
    See: http://ukpmc.blogspot.com/2009/03/acs-open-choice-articles-now-in-pmc-and.html
    A cursory glance at the first twenty or so articles from this set shows that grant holders supported by a range of research funders – in addition to the Wellcome Trust – are providing funds to meet OA costs. Indeed, the single biggest funder in this cohort of author/funder pays papers is the NIH.

  3. Rich Apodaca says:

    Peter, I guess the crux of my question was whether you know of any hard data on the percentage of papers published in ACS journals which were subject to the NIH policy.
    Each paper published in an ACS journal has an acknowledgment section where authors list funding sources. It seems feasible to do an analysis of these sections across all ACS journals over the past, say, ten years. You’d then be able to tell what percentage of papers were likely to be subject to the NIH mandate going forward. You might also find that some journals like J. Med. Chem. and J. Org. Chem. would be disproportionately affected. Just a guess, though.
    I hadn’t seen anything like this and figured if anyone had it would be you. Sounds like the answer was ‘no’?
    Author Choice is only one way authors can comply with the NIH policy – the others involve free publication for authors followed by deposition of the manuscript (free) or final paper (for a fee) by ACS after an embargo period:
    @DrZZ, maybe I am misunderstanding the basics. What I do know is that one way ACS is enabling authors to comply with the policy is to deposit for them either the manuscript or final paper into PubMed. Over time, PubMed will become a competing, legal source for ACS journal articles; if a high enough percentage of articles become available there (think ahead five to ten years), PubMed might become the preferred source. For an industry with problems not unlike many newspapers, this couldn’t possibly be helpful to the bottom line.
    It’s here that I think 10% PubMed availability means something very different than 75% PubMed availability.
    @Robert, Author Choice is one of the options for NIH-funded authors – very few seem to have taken it. Here again, hard data on usage would be nice. Still, a look at the most recent issue of J. Org. Chem., for example shows not one of them is Author Choice (as far as I can tell). Why pay for what you can get for free?

  4. Peter…you commented “Firstly it’s important to realise that Open Access is primarily a business model, and does not affect the quality or volume of publications.” I review a lot of papers and my experience of peer review for certain Open Access journals (no names declared) is that my input and comments are ignored. There ARE high quality Open Access Journals but there are VERY low quality versions too. I have personally reviewed articles and they have been refused from closed access journals for good scientific reasons only to see the same article show up, UNTOUCHED, and supposedly with peer review, in an open access journal. This is NOT about Open Access not working…it is about a bad publisher/process…either Open or Closed. Such Open Access publishers should be identified but it’s a dangerous stance to talk…what are the definitions of “Quality”?

  5. pm286 says:

    I’ll come back to this later.
    There are good and bad journals in both Closed and Open and it’s highly discipline dependent. I won’t disagree that there are some very bad Open Access journals. But there are also awful Closed access publishers.

  6. I wonder how it is that the thinking of the chemistry community is so different from that of the physice community where the major physics journals have existed in perfect harmony with the OA arXiv repository for over a decade?

  7. Mat Todd says:

    Barbara, isn’t that something to do with the history of the discipline? I’m not sure of my facts here, so perhaps someone else could comment, but hasn’t chemistry traditionally been supported by large, wealthy, monolithic organisations, perhaps with industry connections? I’m searching around for reasons other than the suggestion that chemists are somehow different.

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