Kristen Slawinski Ph.D. Contributor GEN

The Saga for Open-Access Research Continues

Just as viruses have evolved alongside humans, the scientific publishing industry has grown alongside scientific research, and so has the debate over open access. With tens of billions of federal government dollars invested into basic research every year in the United States, taxpayers and researchers are wondering why research results are not required to be freely and immediately accessible to the public. Considering that new research builds upon previous work, proponents of open access argue that keeping results behind a paywall ultimately slows down the progress of science worldwide.

Sci-Hub, a website that boasts its status as “the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers,” has recognized this problem, and gives free access to over 64.5 million academic papers—many of which are shared illegally, infringing some American copyright laws. In June, publishing giant Elsevier prevailed in a legal case against Sci-Hub, with New York courts awarding Elsevier $15 million in damages. Just this month, the American Chemical Society (ACS) also won a legal battle against Sci-Hub for $4.8 million in damages. The ruling of the ACS case also states that internet service providers, search engines, and hosting sites cease facilitating the Sci-Hub website. Sci-Hub is ignoring these rulings, as the company is based in Russia, well outside of the court's jurisdiction.

The attention from these recent litigations against Sci-Hub have resulted in a renewed public interest in why publicly funded research does not have an open-access requirement in the U.S. Stealing papers via Sci-Hub cannot be the only solution to making research results more available, some argue.

The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) may be a potential solution, or at least step in the direction of greater access to published research. FASTR is a federal bill that would mandate the public release of taxpayer-funded research within 12 months of publication. It is a successor to the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which had originally been introduced in 2006, but had never been forwarded to a full house of Congress.

Yolanda Fintschenko, Ph.D., former researcher and mother of two, found out her fourteen-year-old daughter had Type 1 diabetes two years ago. However, the standard testing for antibodies associated with this type of diabetes came back negative. Her endocrinologist suggested that the disease may actually be Maturity Onset Diabetes of the Young (MODY), thought to be caused by hereditary mutations. While attempting to research this disease, Dr. Fintschenko was met with paywalls that blocked access to the current findings in MODY research. Attempts at contacting authors for paper texts were often ignored.

“A year to wait to view new research seems excessive,” says Dr. Fintschenko. “As a parent or patient trying to research information about your disease that is still under investigation, you want to be able to find out the latest information immediately. I was surprised that emails to authors from a concerned parent requesting papers were ignored, but [professional requests about a] white paper or review typically garnered an immediate response with documents attached.”

The immediate open access of newly published research seems to benefit both the American public and researchers, so why does FASTR allow a year-long embargo? To prevent a complete disruption of the scientific publishing industry, they say, which, by and large, relies on paid readership, mostly from university, research institutions’, and pharmaceutical companies’ library subscriptions. A significant embargo period serves as a compromise. It also prevents a substantial cost to authors who would be forced to foot the bill for open-access publishing; most of these models rely on an “author pays” business approach.

Publishing in well-established open-access journals from PLOS (Public Library of Science) or eLife costs authors between $1500 and $2900 per paper. According to the 2015 STM report, U.S. researchers publish approximately 575,000 papers annually. If all U.S. papers were required to be open access, billions of dollars could be used to cover publishing costs every year. The STM report also estimates that the worldwide publishing industry generates a revenue of $10 billion annually. If all publications moved to the “author pays” model, the economic blow to science research would be significant.

“Agencies are always cutting budgets and researchers have less and less to do more and more,” says Ali Khademhosseini, Ph.D., director of the Biomaterials Innovation Research Center and professor at Harvard Medical School. “If there is pressure on paying money to get papers out, it adds pressure to already stretched-thin budgets. It can become expensive when each paper costs a few thousand dollars and you publish multiple papers per year. The concept of open access is great if it’s done properly and doesn’t sacrifice the science or hurt existing researchers in low-resource settings.”

Some proponents of open-access research also argue that publishers’ operating costs should be nominal, considering that reviewers are unpaid and seemingly not much goes into formatting and publishing a paper. However, costs are anything but nominal, as evidence by open-access publisher PLOS, which reportedly operated at a loss until 2010, nine years after its start.

PLOS originated in response to an online petition initiative calling for all scientists to pledge that from September 2001 they would discontinue submission of papers to journals that did not make the full text of their papers available to all, free and unfettered, either immediately after publication or after a delay of no more than six months. Although tens of thousands signed the petition, most did not act upon its terms. Nevertheless, PLOS moved forward with a nonprofit publishing operation, receiving grants totaling $13 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Sandler Family Supporting Foundation—which helped keep them afloat until revenues covered costs in 2010.

PLOS publishing now has seven journals and over 200 employees, with their flagship journal PLOS ONE publishing over 22,000 papers in 2016. PLOS publishing is an open-access success story with a positive reputation in the research world as a trustworthy source for novel research with credible peer-review. Unfortunately, the open-access, “author pays” model has led to a questioning of some publisher’s commitment to stringent peer review, given that more published papers equals greater profits.

“One of my issues with open access is that it’s become a predatory field where the quality of the publications goes down and it becomes a money-making operation because authors have to pay for the publications,” says Dr. Khademhosseini. “Established journals have much better reputations and ways of handling papers with more rigor than the majority of open-access journals.”

The growing number of so-called predatory journals prompted Jeffrey Beall, Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Colorado Denver to start a list of “potential, possible, or probable” predatory publishers in 2008. Now offline, Beall revises the list annually with its last update in early 2017 (including 1155 journals). Oncotarget, an open-access journal published by Impact Journals, was on Beall’s list. According to Retraction Watch, it has been issued a “handful” of recent retractions. Starting August 2017, the U.S. government biomedical research database MEDLINE no longer included Oncotarget. Beall stated on Twitter that “Oncotarget's peer review is highly questionable.”

Perhaps more important than the widespread accessibility of published research is its quality and credibility. The paid-access model gives readers the power to decide if a journal is worthy of receiving payment, typically over years of establishing a reputation for solid peer review. Once a journal has established themselves as reputable, however, the price charged for access can balloon.

One of the largest paid-access scientific publishers, Elsevier, was founded 137 years ago and now publishes 420,000 research articles annually and employs 7,500 people globally. Elsevier is also the publisher with the most requested Sci-Hub articles according to Sci-Hub server log data, and has been criticized by the scientific community for charging exorbitant rates for subscription access.

In October 2017, five leading German scientists resigned from their editorial positions at journals published by Elsevier in hopes of swaying Elsevier to accept the terms of a new nationwide payment model. Projekt DEAL aims to negotiate licensing agreements with the entire portfolio of electronic journals for all German universities, research institutes, and public libraries. The initiative would not only negotiate access to the journals for Germany, but also a lump sum for the open-access publication of future German research published in those journals. If Projekt DEAL succeeds, it could start a worldwide revolution for the way that nations work with paid-access publishers.

“Across the world, more and more researchers are standing up for open access and fair cost models,” says Wolfgang Marquardt, one of the German editors who recently stepped down as from his role as editor at Elsevier. “What seem to be arbitrarily high prices are placing a strain on the acceptance of the division of labor between research and publishers. Research libraries are increasingly forced to restrict their services. This poses a growing danger for scientific discourse in the various disciplines.”

Kurt Mehlhorn, Ph.D., another former Elsevier editor, adds that “an unrestricted open access component is indispensable to research. This is the only way to ensure that current research results are completely accessible. Publishers must adapt their business models to these digital publishing options.”

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