Friday, September 22, 2006

Vice Provost of U. C. Davis on the wrong side of Open Access

Well, my first incredibly disappointing moment at U. C. Davis. My brother sent me this link about a letter to Congress from some provosts and deans trying to go backwards on the issue of Open Access to scientific publications.

See the press release here.

And one of the signatories is the Vice Provost for academic affairs at Davis, Barbara Horwitz. Their letter contains many misleading statements in my opinion and seems to be overly biased towards the anti Open Access side of the debate. First, they say
In fact, some studies have already shown that research intensive universities would have to pay considerably more to gain access to the same amount of research under an author- pays model than a subscription model.
Where is the citation for this? This is counter to intuition and on its face seems ridiculous to me. It requires some backing up with evidence, especially in a letter to congress.

They also claim:
The free posting of unedited author manuscripts by government agencies threatens the integrity of the scientific record, potentially undermines the publisher peer review process, and is not a smart use of funds that could be better used for research.
How on earth does posting of unedited manuscripts threaten the integrity of the scientific record. That is like saying scientists should not give talks on anything until they have published it, and then they should only quote from their published papers. Or, maybe scientists should not even discuss their work at all in public and should just present it through papers published in journals. I am astonished that a Officer of my University would make such a statement.

Perhaps most amazingly, this collection of academic folks says:
As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, you are certainly sensitive to the various forces that shape and reshape the Federal budget from year to year. Recently, for example, we learned that the Biomolecular Interaction Network Database--the world's largest free repository for proteomic data--lost its funding and curtailed its curation efforts.
This too appears to be almost absurd and certainly misleading. BIND is in the true tradition of Open Access - a database of proteomic information for the world to share. And these provosts and deans are trying to use its loss of funding as an argument for LESS OPEN ACCESS. How completely nonsensical is that? But even more incomprehensible, BIND is a CANADIAN database effort, supported by Genome Canada funding. So how this relates to the funding by the US Congress is beyond me.

This collection of provosts and deans appear to be trying to do a slight of hand here with the details. I would be willing to wager that the driving force behind their letter is the desire to continue bringing in funds to their Societies or Universities that come from subscription based publishing. (Note it seems unlikely they are writing this letter as a statement of the official policies of their universities - certainly, I did not see any extensive discussion at Davis prior to Dr. Horwitz's signing this letter). A little survey of the backgrounds of the letter writers is informative here. What I have found with a little googling is that many of the signatories have active leadership roles in publishing non Open Access journals. Robert R. Rich is the Editor in Chief of J. Immunology, which does not support Open Access. Kenneth L. Barker is the President of SEBM, a publisher of non open access scientific publications. Barbara A. Horwitz, was the president of APS which sponsored this press release and publishes many non Open Access journals. I am sure many of the others have some type of similar roles. It would have been nice for them to mention that in this press release.

To keep in that spirit, as I have said before, I am on the editorial board of PLoS Biology and PLoS Computational Biology and I support Open Access publishing completely. I do not always disclose this in discussions of Open Access but then again, I have never written a letter to congress making use of my position in a university to promote a position with such obvious direct benefit to myself.

Some interesting links and tidbits related to this article:
  • In their annual report from a few years ago, APS discusses how the DC Principles organization was founded specifically to counteract the Open Access movement.
  • Peter Horwitz writes about the letter more here
  • The APS we are discussing here is the American Physiological Society. Note it is NOT the same as the other APS commonly seen on science journals - the American Physical Society which is moving more to complete Open Access.

Note - thanks for T. Scott Plutchak at UAB for pointing out that it is possible to support Open Access without being a total jerk, and thus getting me to tone down some of the language from the original version of this post.


  1. What really bugs me about groups like "DC Principles for Free Access" is the Orwellian hypocrisy of their names. Why can't they just be honest and call themselves "DC Principles for Closed Access"? There's a really annoying trend these days where it is impossible to figure out the position of a group based on its name -- for instance, it is entirely possible that a hypothetical group entitled "Concerned Parents for Quality Science Education" is in fact a creationist group.

  2. I agree. The DC Principles group's name is misleading. Just like the letter.


Most recent post

Panoramas from the past ...

In 1997, my then girlfriend (now wife) and I went camping in Death Valley. It was our fourth trip there to camp in grad. school. I brought m...