Peter Gregory, the RSC's director of publishing, explains what open archive initiatives could mean to scientific research and to learned societies.

Peter Gregory, the RSC’s director of publishing, explains what open archive initiatives could mean to scientific research and to learned societies. 

Open archiving of scientific research is currently arousing much debate (see Chem. Br., November 2003, p5). Unrestricted access to the results of chemical research, especially that which is funded by taxpayers, is the aim of those promoting open archiving who believe that publishers restrict or control access to scientific literature by levying charges. This point is often raised and the response of the scientific community will have a profound effect both on the way that scientific work is documented and communicated and on the future of charity-based science-promoting organisations, including the RSC. 

The view of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), which represents many society publishers in the UK whose charitable activities would not be possible without income from their publishing operations, is as follows: 

ALPSP is wholly in favour of maximising access to research literature; the various proposals for achieving this (e.g. Open Access journals, institutional repositories, self-archiving), however, raise complex economic, logistical and sociological questions which differ from field to field as well as between different sizes and types of publishers. Much more information needs to be gathered through experimentation and analysis; ALPSP therefore welcomes the establishment of journals with different economic models for open access in order that the benefit to scholars and the long-term stability and viability of these models can be assessed. 

So what do the proponents of open archiving actually want? Is the cost associated with the peer review and publishing process to be included in scientists’ funding or should peer review and publishing be free? 

Currently the users of information pay. Most open archiving models foresee authors paying. There are questions here about whether published authors will have to cover the cost of the submissions that are rejected or whether they will have to pay for submission rather than publication - perhaps several times for the same manuscript. Are these costs to be contained in research grants? And what about those authors who cannot pay? 

Industrial authors are few, industrial users many. As a result, the taxpayer would finance industrial research and information supply. The current system is regulated by market pressures, with successful products and services being determined and funded by the customers. Open archive initiatives would allow those who can pay to promote their own work, provide industry with a ’free ride’, and could result in an overall increase in costs and a reduction in quality and reliability. 

Clearly, scientists could release their work freely on the internet. Authors would carry the cost of maintaining these web services, and the responsibility of doing so in the future in order to maintain the scientific record. The cost of promoting the availability of information and of protecting personal copyright would also be important issues for authors. Readers and users of the information would carry the burden of quality control and of retrieving this material from the Internet. In this scenario, decentralisation of quality assurance would require many more people to be involved, often with little experience or expertise and some, inevitably, with a vested interest in the result. As soon as one envisages anything more organised than self-regulation, costs are incurred. 

The current system, with the peer review process coordinated by the publishers, either by their own staff or by associated (and financed) academics, costs millions of pounds each year. It can, therefore, be argued that abandoning this system will save costs but if quality control is still desired, decentralising the process will cost still more, reduce its reliability, and require additional investment of time and effort by users. 

Open archive supporters also argue that the current system restricts access to information to those who can and do pay. So who is excluded? In the case of the RSC and many other major publishers, users in the poorest countries in the world have free access through the PERI (Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information) initiative. Also, countries, such as Russia, Australia, and Israel, and groups of national organisations, for example in India, China, California, and Ohio, have comprehensive access to RSC content due to centrally paid consortium deals. Access to RSC content is greater than ever before and growing daily and this is true of most other publishers. So what would an open archive approach achieve? Free access to all, including many who would not use it, and free access to an undoubtedly grateful industry. 

The RSC’s Royal Charter requires a commitment to furthering the chemical sciences. This is achieved in part by supporting the dissemination of ’correct’ science through our publishing operation. Quality control, technical innovation for authors, referees and readers, the high speed of the RSC publishing process, and a professional staff dedicated to and trained for this purpose are the cornerstones of this activity. Importantly, however, in the case of the RSC and other chemical societies, such as the ACS, which retain control of their publishing operations, any surplus is used to fund other charitable activities such as science education. Open archive proposals aimed at reducing the perceived ’excessive profits’ of publishers could have a detrimental effect on the ability of the chemical societies to do their work. RSC publishing, therefore, supports the words of caution expressed by the ALPSP. 

Source: Chemistry in Britain


Peter Gregory is director of publishing, RSC.