open access logoIn response to a We The People petition, the Obama White House has taken another step in the journey to provide open access to publicly-funded research.

Today the Office of Science and Technology directed all federal agencies that manage “more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publically available free of charge within 12 months after original publication.”

The open-access movement is not restricted to the United States, but you could argue that we are not moving as quickly or as radically as other nations. For example, last summer United Kingdom Science Minister David Willetts accepted the recommendations of a task force on open access. The first recommendation (pdf): “support for publication in open access or hybrid journals … especially when [the research] is publicly funded (emphasis added).”

Privileging open-access journals means no one-year wait for UK citizens.

Back at home, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has required research to be publicly accessible after a year since 2008. The Obama Administration called for comments on an open access policy twice in its first term.

The White House statement comes a week after a bill, FASTR (‘Fair Access to Science and Technology Research’), was introduced into the US Congress which would require public access to papers just six months after publication.

Last week, FASTR (H.R.708, pdf) became the fourth open access bill introduced into Congress; it would require open access after only six months. The initial bill sponsors are Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Kevin Yoder (R-KS). Its predecessor, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), was introduced in May 2006, April 2009 and February 2012. (Although the bill was introduced on February 14, the Library of Congress does not yet have a copy of the bill text.)

Of no surprise to anyone following this issue, publishers oppose the measure. The chairman of Elsevier sits on the board of the Association of American Publishers; Elsevier is the target of an academic boycott.

Why pick on Elsevier specifically?

The Loon happily grants that nearly all characteristics of Elsevier as a publisher and as a business are replicated by other publishers. It’s not hard to find other publishers who buy legislation, publish fake ghostwritten journals, spread (and fund the spreading of) outright lies about open access, bamboozle faculty every chance they get, abuse librarians and library budgets, make obscene profit margins, et cetera.

It’s mildly difficult (though certainly not impossible), however, to find another publisher who’s done all these things, studiedly, repeatedly, and shamelessly. And, let us not forget, powerfully. Elsevier is the biggest of the big-pigs. Make a dent in Elsevier, and watch how fast the rest of the industry changes.

Elsevier — and other similar publishers — gets its content for free. You can think of scientific journals as the original “user generated content that made billions for publishers.”

One analyst thinks the open access movement could cut Elsevier profits by as much as 60%. And what are those profits? In 2009, it averaged $1383 per article. According to The Economist, in 2010 Elsevier had an operating-profit margin of 36%. (This is an example of monopoly rents and reflects usury levels.) In 2011, sales grew 2% and profits grew 4%.

And those sales are significant. From The Guardian (2011), Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist:

You might resent Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That’ll be $31.50.

Of course, you could go into the library (if it still exists). But they too have been hit by cosmic fees. The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I’ve seen, Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets, which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy…

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose… Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles…

[A]n analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.” Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more.

The Obama Administration move is in the right direction, but it does not affect all federally-funded research. And it still grants publishers a one-year monopoly on top of the year-or-so lag between submission and publishing.

The British recommendation (a solo one, by the way) to privilege open-source journals for publicly funded research is a much more welcome blow to our government’s indifference to information monopolies.

View Obama Administration Policy on Scribd: Increasing Public Access to the Results of Scientific Research

Tip: Dan Gillmor; cross-posted from WiredPen.

Kathy Gill (@kegill)has 20 years experience in digital media—both development and instruction. Since 2003, she has taught at the University of Washington and currently manages the website for King County Elections. A political junkie, her consulting work includes four years writing about U.S. politics for about.com, one of the top 10 visited Web content sites on the Internet, and she has worked with Boeing, AT&T Wireless, SAFECO, and Microsoft on intranet projects.

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