On page 14 of the July 30, 2007, issue of C&EN, an article entitled “Bill Mandates Public Access” by David Hanson describes a section of a bill recently passed from the House to the Senate. The relevent text from the bill is as follows-

SEC. 217. The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law. 

Hanson’s article states that the Professional and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) Division of the Association of American Publishers has asked members of Congress to reconsider this bill, or at least the mandatory submission to PubMed. Hanson reports that the PSP claims that-

“This language could serve to undermine the existing system of peer review and scholarly publication which disseminates high-quality research findings throughout the scientific community,” … 

Further down, Hanson gets to the real issue-

Brian D. Crawford, chair of the PSP committee and senior vice president of the Journals Publishing Group at the American Chemical Society (which publishes C&EN), says the House language violates fundamental copyright principles. The bill “would essentially force authors and publishers to, in essence, forfeit their copyrights” without compensation for their investments and would have many negative impacts on private-sector publishers, he says. [Italics by Gaussling]

What is telling is the quote by Brian D. Crawford, who suggests that the publishers stand to lose their copyright on the copy submitted by the NIH funded researchers.  If you are a publisher, should you be worried about this?  Probably.  The gravy train may be leaving the station.

Yes, the publishers have invested large sums in building publishing and distribution systems for the profitable dissemination of information.  But I would add that they have built these publishing engines on a system that hands voluminous copy to them for free.  Unlike other publishers who have to pay their authors for content, academic publishers do not pay contributors who, I might add, provide some incredibly valuable content. Academic publishers have built publishing businesses using content paid for by government granting agencies, and by extension, the public.

It’s easy to fault publishers for taking advantage of a system that hands them publishable content for free. But, on the other hand, circulation numbers for most publications is quite modest.  Even if advertising is used, the typical low circulation of any given specialized scientific journal is so low that only very modest advertising rates could be obtained. Many journals survive on subscription fees alone.  Examples of journals that have come to terms with advertising are J. Chem. Ed., Nature, and Science

The scientific publishing system is a sort of a deal with the Devil- the scientist gets the grant, does the work, and then what?  After dinner talks at the Elks Club? Of course not. A manuscript is prepared and in exchange for free printing and distribution, the publisher obtains the copyright. The copyright is the key.  It is a cash cow in the same way that the copyright to the Beatles songs are a cash cow, only with smaller numbers.

I think that Sec. 217 of H.R. 3043 is the right idea. The public has already paid for the research. Why should it be intercepted at no cost by printers who then have an everlasting copyright and control of what is rightly national treasure? The citizens have to pay taxes for the research and then turn around and pay commercial interests for the right to read it.  That is wrong.

If commercial interests want to make a profit on scientific publishing, then they need to find a better model.  The public shouldn’t be barred from access to what they have already paid for. Advertising may be the way to do it.  Perhaps the funding agency should have the copyright and publishers pay a fee to print and distribute it?  Comments?