December 3, 2004
Allow us one end-of-year, self-congratulatory paragraph. BioScience has published 1176 pages in 2004, of which about 800 were peer reviewed. The others included Features, Editorials, Viewpoints, AIBSnews, Washington Watch, Eye on Education, BioBriefs, and book reviews. The peer-reviewed articles were accepted only after each had been revised in response to comments of (usually) three reviewers selected for their expertise in relevant fields; dozens of other submitted manuscripts were turned down on the basis of poor reviews, or were otherwise judged unready for publication here. Although most articles arrived in our office unheralded, a significant minority were actively solicited. All the published pages were carefully edited for clarity and accessibility, and their accuracy was checked insofar as possible. Their appearance benefited from the attention of a skilled compositor and art director. As a result, in considerable degree, of all this work, many BioScience articles have been widely cited. We believe that to be a service to biology and to our expert authors, as well as to our readers.
This recitation may help explain why we are giving space in this issue to Ellen Paulâ€™s arresting Viewpoint, "Warning: Open Access May Be Hazardous to the Health of Your Scientific Society" (p. 1060). The immediate impetus to her concern (and that of AIBS) is a startling proposal that was issued last September by Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In line with recommendations from the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, Zerhouni proposed that within six months of publication, articles resulting in whole or in part from NIH-funded research be made available online to the public at no cost. Copyright be damned, he might have added.
By mandating open-access publication in what would have to be a huge government-funded database, Zerhouniâ€™s scheme threatens the ability of not-for-profit, as well as commercial, publishers to cover the costs of peer review, editing, and production by the traditional method of charging libraries and individuals for subscriptions. (Although the NIH has recently made a small concession, suggesting that depositing articles in its repository will be voluntary, researchers who depend on the agencyâ€™s largesse may feel that decision is reminiscent of Hobsonâ€™s choice.) Librarians and individuals might question whether they need to pay for journal subscriptions when they know that six months hence the contents will be online and free.
AIBS publishes few articles stemming from NIH-funded research, but the NIH, if it acts as it has signaled, will set a precedent that other research-funding agencies may be tempted to emulate. The Wellcome Trust in Britain, one of the worldâ€™s largest biomedical charities, is already working on a similar plan.
Scientists understandably like the idea of their work being made widely available, and many societies are studying methods for increasing access. It remains to be seen whether scientists will be as enthusiastic about paying the several thousand dollars per article that even not-for-profit publishers would have to charge, over the long term, for open-access publication. Open access has its merits, but government-mandated and government-controlled open access for the published work of all scientists who receive government support poses threats that many are as yet ignorant about. Zerhouniâ€™s proposal needs more careful thought.
Timothy M. Beardsley