Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How Involved Should the U.S. Government Be in the Scholarly Journal Publishing Business?

How Involved Should the U.S. Government Be in the Scholarly Journal Publishing Business?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Wired News on March 14, 2007 posted a story about U.S. Senators John Cornyn’s and Joseph Liebermann’s announced decision to re-introduce last year’s Federal Research Public Access Act (S.2695, also called “FRPAA”). If passed, this Act willrequire federally funded research to become publicly available online within six months of being published. Last year’s bill is described here by the Congressional Research Service.

This bill raises the perennial debate topic about how peer reviewed journals should be funded and whether “free access” should be provided to Federally-funded research. Many of the research articles published in peer-reviewed journals originate through Government funding. Many — but not all — of peer reviewed journals are published by for-profit commercial publishers. Other types of publishers include university presses, professional associations, and government agencies. Federally funded research is disseminated both through for profit and through not-for-profit publication channels.

As I’ve discussed here and here, peer reviewed journals are only the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to disseminating research and scholarly information. Key roles are also played by conference presentations and proceedings, seminars, blogs, email and internet distribution, listservs, telephone, etc. etc. Yet the peer reviewed journal article — and its sponsoring journal — continues to play a key role in the formal social and communications systems of research and scholarship.

Funding for peer reviewed journals has traditionally been provided through some mix of:

  • Front end “page charges” paid by authors, their institutions, or their funding agencies when an article is accepted for publication from among the many that are submitted for publication.
  • Advertising.
  • Subsidies provided by the journal’s sponsoring organization (e.g., from professional association membership dues).
  • Individual and institutional subscription fees.

Complaints about constantly rising subscription fees have been voiced by librarians and others for many years. Recent programs to move journal reviewing and distribution online (e.g., see Public Library of Science) are an attempt to change the overall technology and economics of the system while maintaining the quality control function of peer review. Other changes to the overall economics of the journal system include the increasing use of “free” commercial tools such as Google in the indexing and retrieval of scholarly information.

T. Scott provided one of the more balanced reviews of the Senate bill last year; it is located here with a current discussion (and comments) here. An example of organized support for FRPPA is described here (The Alliance for Taxpayer Access). Organized opposition is represented by The Association of American Publishers (AAP).

In my opinion,  the fundamental question is the title of this article, i.e., “How Involved Should the U.S. Government Be in the Scholarly Journal Publishing Business?”  Since the Federal government is already providing so much input to the process — funding the research and the institutions where research takes place, helping to pay for front end page charges and for library subscriptions, assisting in payment of the salaries of the researchers and scholars who perform voluntary editorial and review roles, etc. etc. — doesn’t it makes perfect sense for the Government to take the logical next step and require that processes be established to publish the information that is generated through funded research?

The devil is on the details though, especially when we start to define “free access” and the following types of questions are raised:

  • Who will be responsible for paying for the typesetting, page composition, printing, page editing, and other costs associated with the physical part of the publishing process? (Think about the costs of editing and quality control associated with complex formulas and equations.)
  • Who should pay for indexing and abstracting the articles that are thus published? Will A&I services be responsible for publishing “embargo dates” after which original articles are freely available?
  • Should non-U.S. citizens be allowed to obtain “free access” to the research that is published as a result of U.S. Federal Government funding? What about students at academic institutions that do not restrict enrollment by children of undocumented workers?
  • What happens when a U.S. Senator complains that the U.S. government is distributing research that is based on a “controversial” topic (e.g., cloning, stem cell research, evolution, genetics and homosexuality, etc.)?
  • Will volunteer article reviewers care whether or not their efforts are subsidizing both free and commercial access systems?
  • Will copyright and intellectual property laws need to be modified?
  • What will happen to low circulation specialized journals that are already subsidized by professional association membership dues if they begin losing submissions?
  • Who will pay for the cost of systems and processes that must be instituted to ensure that articles are submitted to the official reporting or publishing agency as required?
  • Will a “two-tier” system evolve where minimally reviewed and edited articles are distributed through the Federally mandated system, then a higher level of editing and reviewing is applied, perhaps mixed with more sophisticated database and communication services?
  • Will the new system just be a formalization of the processes that already exist outside the peer review journal system (e.g., conferences, seminars, emailed files, etc.)?
  • What will happen to the supplementary data that accompany some articles?
  • After all is said and done, will the hours and dollars devoted to moving to the new system end up being the same, just distributed differently? And how will we really know if the new “free access” system is really better than the old, creaky, unfair system?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that many publishers are already wrestling with the question of how much to give away for free and how much to require payment for. For an example, see this presentation Free Is Good by Stephen Rhind-Tutt of Alexander Street Press.

I am also concerned about the effect that increasing involvement by the Federal government in publishing will have a negative impact on experimentation with new business and publishing models. For example, in Are Social Networking and Social Media Threats or Opportunities for Professional Associations? I suggested that professional societies — many of which publish scholarly peer reviewed journals — may need to adopt social networking and collaborative social media as a way to “compete” with the growth in low cost professional networking and collaboration systems on the web. Will a Federally mandated publishing vehicle help — or hinder — such experimentation?

Since these questions are so difficult to answer with certainty, the logical place to work out these issues will be in the realm of politics. Here’s hoping the debate will generate more light than heat.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Dennis D. McDonald


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