Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Contributions and responsibilities of authors, publishers, funders, and institutions

Responsibility for the dissemination of publicly funded research results is surely shared by multiple parties. Here are some thoughts on relative contributions and responsibilities. Note that these are intended to apply to primary original research articles reporting novel results, not necessarily to other types of publications such as reviews, commentaries, etc. The latter can be discussed separately, and should be, in my view.

1) The public surely has a right to access articles for no or low cost if public funds have paid for the research. For a citizen to have to pay $30 for an article regarding a disease they or a family member has is rightly viewed as unreasonable by the public. Researchers may have access through the subscriptions of their institutions, but this is no help to the average citizen who surely has an equal right to access.

2) Authors should accept responsibility for their decisions and publish so that their work is widely accessible. Authors control submissions, not publishers. Publishers can only choose among the submissions they actually receive. Publicly funded researchers make a decision as to where they publish their results, and thus they need to accept responsibility for understanding what rights they are granting to the publisher when they choose to publish in a given journal. Authors have options. They can choose open access (OA) journals or journals whose publishers charge no or low fees for individual articles that are requested by the public. Or they can choose to publish in journals that charge $30 for a single article. The latter seems unethical to me. Does it seem ethical to you as an author? If you are a publicly funded author and believe it is ethical to publish in a journal with a high per-article paywall for citizens, please explain in a comment below.

3) A publisher does provide an online system for submission and review that has some value, but not a lot. Publishers do provide typesetting, but self-publishing is inexpensive now, so the value of this is limited. Also, some publishers do copy editing, but it is questionable how much that benefits authors, or even readers. Authors are responsible for their every word, and can hire their own editors if they need help expressing themselves in the lingua franca of science, English. If editors and publishers want to impose changes in text on authors, authors do have the option to publish elsewhere. This is known as "voting with your feet".

4) OA journals have fixed costs of at least $1000 and often $2000 or more per article. Usually authors pay only part of that, and the rest is subsidized in most cases. Long term sustainability of OA journals presumably requires that authors pay the full cost of publication. Publication is a reasonable cost of performing research and should be factored into funding of research. Research that is not published has effectively not been done, i.e., doesn't exist - so publication is a necessary part of doing publicly funded research. Authors should take responsibility for paying for the costs of publication to ensure their research is widely available.

5) It is reasonable for funders to require researchers to publish in a way that makes the work widely accessible at reasonable cost, including data mining. Guidelines or rules are justifiable. Legislation should not be needed to create access, and also should not be used to limit access (as in the case of the RWA). All that is needed is that funders make their expectations known to grant recipients and hold them to it. Also, research institutions can require their researchers to publish their work in a manner that makes it widely accessible at reasonable cost.

In sum, authors, funders and research institutions all share responsibility for ensuring access to research results. By working together they should be able to come up with practices and policies that ensure wide availability at reasonable cost of publicly funded research results. Publishers facilitate the process of disseminating research results, but with enough competition among publishers, including OA journals, sufficient pressure will be applied to ensure fair access, but ONLY if authors, funders and institutions who are the source of the research take responsibility for their publication decisions.

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