Open Acces News Item

Stephen J Bensman notsjb at LSU.EDU
Mon May 23 11:22:10 EDT 2005

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                    May 23, 2005                                          

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               PAGE ONE                                                                                                       
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               Peer Pressure                                                                                                  
               Scholarly Journals'                                                                                            
               Premier Status                                                                                                 
               Is Diluted by Web                                                                                              
               More Research Is Free Online                                                                                   
               Amid Spurt of Start-Ups;                                                                                       
               Publishers' Profits at Risk                                                                                    
               A Revolt on UC's Campuses                                                                                      
               By BERNARD WYSOCKI JR.                                                                                         
               Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL                                                                      
               May 23, 2005; Page A1                                                                                          
               BERKELEY, Calif. -- From a stool at Yali's café, near the University of California campus, Michael Eisen is    
               loudly trashing the big players in academic publishing. Hefty subscription fees for journals are blocking      
               scientific progress, he says, and academics who think they have full access to timely literature are kidding   
               themselves. "They're just wrong," Dr. Eisen says. He suggests scholarly journals be free and accessible to     
               everyone on the Web.                                                                                           
               This may sound like the ranting of a campus radical, but Dr. Eisen is a well known computational biologist at  
               a nearby national laboratory and a Berkeley faculty member. He is also a co-founder of a nonprofit startup     
               called the Public Library of Science, which produces its own scholarly journals, in competition with           
               established publishers, distributed free online.                                                               
               It's a campus twist on a raging Internet-era debate about who should control information and what it should    
               cost. For decades, traditional scholarly journals have held an exalted and lucrative position as arbiters of   
               academic excellence, controlling what's published and made available to the wider community. These days,       
               research is increasingly available on free university Web sites and through start-up outfits. Scholarly        
               journals are finding their privileged position under attack.                                                   
               (Embedded image moved to file: pic10808.gif)[Price of Knowledge]                                               
               The 10-campus University of California system has emerged as a hotbed of insurgency against this $5 billion    
               global market. Faculty members are competing against publishers with free or inexpensive journals of their     
               own. Two UC scientists organized a world-wide boycott against a unit of Reed Elsevier -- the Anglo-Dutch giant 
               that publishes 1,800 periodicals -- protesting its fees. The UC administration itself has jumped into the      
               fray. It's urging scholars to deposit working papers and monographs into a free database in addition to        
               submitting them for publication elsewhere. It has also battled with publishers, including nonprofits, to lower 
               "We have to take back control from the publishers," says Daniel Greenstein, associate vice provost for the UC  
               system, which spends $30 million a year on scholarly periodicals.                                              
               The clash between academics and publishers was exacerbated last year when the taxpayer-funded National         
               Institutes of Health proposed that articles resulting from NIH grants be made available free online. That      
               prompted protests from Reed Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons Inc. and several nonprofit publishers such as the      
               American Diabetes Association, which argued such a move would hurt their businesses.                           
               The NIH retreated and in February made the program voluntary. It now asks authors to post on an NIH Web site   
               any articles based on NIH grants within 12 months of publication.                                              
               The debate comes at a time when it's easier than ever to find scholarly articles by using simple Internet      
               tools such as Google. In late 2004, Google Inc., in Mountain View, Calif., launched Google Scholar, a free     
               service that can search for peer-reviewed articles as well as theses, abstracts and other scholarly material,  
               much of it in scientific fields.                                                                               
               Traditional publishers argue that the expensive process of selecting and editing journals is a necessary       
               filter to help scholars sift through vast amounts of research. The nonprofit publisher of the prestigious      
               Science magazine makes content available free after 12 months. Other publishers note that with a combination   
               of free abstracts, free distribution to the developing world and public-library subscriptions, much of the     
               globe already has access to what they produce.                                                                 
               "The vast majority -- 90% of researchers in the world -- have access online to our material," says Karen       
               Hunter, senior vice president at Elsevier, the science and medical division of Reed Elsevier that publishes    
               the company's journals. Elsevier's scholarly journals bring in about $1.6 billion in annual revenue with an    
               operating-profit margin of about 30%.                                                                          
               Publishers have been entrenched in academia for decades. One big concern, the U.K.'s Taylor & Francis Group,   
               now part of T&F Informa PLC, was founded in the 18th century. The venerable nonprofit Science was founded in   
               the 1880s by Thomas Edison. The industry became firmly established in the 1950s and 1960s in the wake of the   
               Soviet space program, whose success spurred a wave of scientific publishing.                                   
               Although learned societies such as the American Physical Society hold sway at the top of the prestige pyramid, 
               commercial publishers have created a second tier, producing thousands of niche periodicals from Addictive      
               Behaviors to Zoology, both Elsevier titles. Scholars are generally grateful that publishers take the risk of   
               starting new titles, which often take years to break even.                                                     
               The publishers' prestige derives from the rigorous system of peer review, in which a journal's editorial board 
               will select experts in a field to vet articles. At some top scholarly journals, less than 10% of submitted     
               articles make it into a publication. In turn, the peer-review system lends authority to a scholar's work, and  
               has long been a springboard to academic advancement.                                                           
               Aaron Edlin, a UC Berkeley professor of law and economics, is a co-founder of Berkeley Electronic Press,       
               publisher of 25 online scholarly journals. His playbook is simple: undercut giant rivals with lower prices --  
               around $300 -- faster turnaround and Internet-only distribution. Yet when Dr. Edlin helped write a paper on    
               game theory recently, he submitted it to the competition, the Journal of Economic Theory, published by         
               The reason: Professor Edlin's co-author on the paper is striving to win tenure at the California Institute of  
               Technology and needs exposure in big-name journals. "He thought it was important. I respected his decision,"   
               says Prof. Edlin.                                                                                              
               The peer-review system has many defenders. "There's too much stuff out there, and we are all way too busy,"    
               says Lee Miller, a retired professor of ecology at Cornell University and editor emeritus of the nonprofit     
               journal Ecology, published by the Ecological Society of America. "Anything that saves you time and leads you   
               to the most important work is helpful."                                                                        
               In the 1990s, the commercial industry consolidated. The biggest publishers began buying or building new        
               journals and raising prices. That edifice only began to be challenged with the rise of the Internet, which cut 
               distribution costs and triggered a wave of experimentation in what is called "open access" publishing.         
               In London, a for-profit startup called BioMed Central publishes more than 100 scholarly journals available     
               free to the public via the Internet. BioMed Central charges individual authors a processing charge of about    
               $850 but doesn't charge it for authors affiliated with member institutions. BioMed Central says it has 527     
               institutional members, including British and American universities, which pay between $1,700 and $8,600 a year 
               to belong.                                                                                                     
               In the U.S. a powerful open-access advocate has been Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, former UC scholar and    
               former NIH director. He's now head of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He co-founded Public 
               Library of Science with Berkeley's Dr. Eisen, backed by a $9 million grant from a private foundation. Charging 
               authors a fee of $1,500, the group launched its first peer-reviewed journal, PLoS Biology, in 2003, and also   
               distributes its contents free on the Internet.                                                                 
               In the late 1990s, Dr. Eisen was studying the yeast genome, a booming field that has a large overlap with the  
               human genome and 200 journals publishing related research. He wanted all these journal articles freely         
               available at his fingertips, an impossible request because many are behind subscription barriers.              
               Some scholars think publishing should operate like the Linux computer operating system, where programmers      
               build on each other's work in an ongoing, collaborative project. In the scholarly realm, a database called     
               arXiv -- pronounced "archive," as if the "x" were the Greek letter "chi" -- has become a repository of         
               scholarship in the physics field. It's owned and operated by Cornell University and partially supported by the 
               National Science Foundation. If the UC administration has its way, something like that would be the norm       
               throughout academia.                                                                                           
               To experienced publishers, much of the open-access talk seems naive. "A lot of this is self-righteous talk,"   
               says Alan Leshner, executive publisher of Science and chief executive of its nonprofit parent, the American    
               Association for the Advancement of Science. He says giving away content isn't a viable business model because  
               of the tremendous costs of putting out reputable journals.                                                     
               He notes that Science gets 12,000 submissions and publishes 800 articles a year on a $10 million editorial     
               budget. That averages more than $10,000 per published article, a high number because of the costs associated   
               with handling the unusually large number of submissions the journal receives. Industry experts say typical     
               per-article costs are between $3,000 and $4,000.                                                               
               If open access takes off, information will flow faster, but publishers will make less money. Among those who   
               would be hurt is Reed Elsevier. Sami Kassab, analyst at investment house Exane BNP Paribas in London,          
               estimates that such a movement could sharply cut the company's profit margin on periodicals to between 10% and 
               15% of revenue, from the current 30% or more.                                                                  
               Currently, the open-access movement makes up between 1% and 2% of the market, experts say. While that number   
               seems small, the concept is assuming an important role channeling academic discontent.                         
               "There's a lot of sentiment that work is being taken advantage of by the commercial publishers," says          
               Alessandro Lizzeri, associate professor of economics at New York University and editor of Elsevier's Journal   
               of Economic Theory. He says that while editors get little compensation for their work, authors and reviewers   
               -- aside from prestige -- usually get nothing or just a nominal fee.                                           
               Prof. Lizzeri says that two of the 40 members of his editorial board resigned recently because the journal     
               isn't free to readers. "If half the board resigns I'm in trouble," he says.                                    
               These rumblings hit the University of California early on. In October 2003, faculty members made a rare        
               display of solidarity with the university administration. Two scientists at the University of California at    
               San Francisco staged a protest over a $91,000 bill from Elsevier's Cell Press unit for one year's access to    
               six biology journals. The two professors called for a world-wide boycott, urging fellow scholars at UC and     
               beyond to refuse to serve as authors, editors or peer reviewers at the six periodicals in question.            
               Their timing couldn't have been better for the university administration, which was just about to begin        
               negotiations with the Reed Elsevier unit over a new contract. In the late 1990s, all UC campuses had banded    
               together into a single buying consortium. In 2002, the university hired Dr. Greenstein, a history professor    
               turned expert on digital libraries. With the state of California's budget crisis forcing him to trim library   
               spending to $62 million a year, Dr. Greenstein wanted to take a hard line.                                     
               "It was the opening shot, really, in struggling head-on with this world of scientific publishing," says Keith  
               Yamamoto, executive vice dean at UCSF medical school and one of the boycott's leaders.                         
               The university was paying Elsevier $10.3 million a year for print and online subscriptions to most of its      
               1,800 journals. The university demanded a 25% reduction and at one point threatened to walk away from the      
               As the negotiations grew tense, faculty at other UC campuses started to chime in sympathetically. The UC Santa 
               Cruz faculty senate passed a resolution urging faculty to boycott Elsevier journals by refusing to submit      
               articles or to serve on periodical boards.                                                                     
               "That alarmed us," says a Reed Elsevier spokeswoman in Amsterdam. More than 100 UC faculty members serve as    
               senior editors of Elsevier journals and about 1,000 serve on editorial boards. The publisher fanned out across 
               the campuses, drumming up support among friendly faculty with breakfasts and other meetings. The spokeswoman   
               says the company concluded that most UC faculty members didn't know about the boycott call or didn't support   
               The negotiations dragged on for two months and grew testy. In late 2003, the university won a 25% price        
               reduction to $7.7 million a year for 1,200 Elsevier periodicals. Elsevier agreed to throw the six biology      
               journals into the deal.                                                                                        
               "They got a very, very good deal," acknowledges Reed Elsevier's Ms. Hunter. She says the company got some      
               concessions, too. UC gave up access to several hundred periodicals, for example. UC says Elsevier unilaterally 
               added the titles into the arrangement before negotiations started and says it doesn't care about their         
               Suddenly, the UC negotiation was the buzz of the academic library world and an inspiration for others to       
               follow suit. One UC librarian, Catherine Candee, says a university negotiator elsewhere "called us up and      
               said, 'Thank you, you saved us $1 million.' "                                                                  
               Write to Bernard Wysocki Jr. at bernie.wysocki at wsj.com1                                                        
                       URL for this article:                                                                                  
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                       (1) mailto:bernie.wysocki at                                                                      

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