Thursday, December 22, 2005

OA as instrumental good

Historically, Open Access (OA) has been viewed as primarily an issue for researchers in the sciences. Today, however, there is a growing debate about its relevance to the humanities. So when last week the Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics (PSWP) site was launched it seemed an ideal opportunity to discuss OA in the context of the humanities with Josiah Ober, the professor of classics at Princeton who, in collaboration with Stanford's Walter Scheidel, created PSWP.



Josiah Ober

Q: I understand that the purpose of the PSWP initiative is "to make the results of current research undertaken by members of Princeton and Stanford Universities in the field of classics available in advance of final publication." Why? And who do you expect to download the papers?

A: The purpose is two-fold: first, to cut down the lag time between the completion of an article or chapter and its availability to the scholarly community (the lag can be considerable, especially in the case of edited volumes, which can proceed no more quickly than the rate of the slowest contributor), and to allow authors of work in progress to get feedback from other scholars.

My guess is that most downloads will be by students and professional classicists for use in their own scholarship.

Q: Which is the more important function of PSWP in your view: to enable authors to solicit comments prior to submitting articles to a journal, or to increase the visibility of research being done by the Princeton and Stanford departments of classics?

A: I regard soliciting comments as more important than publicity per se. I am perfectly happy to have the work of our two faculties receive extra attention, but that is not my main concern.

Q: Does the PSWP concept owe anything to the physics preprint server arXiv.org?

A: I don’t know that server. My model in initially thinking through the site was social science Working Papers (WP) sites, in the first instance the WPs of the Princeton Economics Department. Gene Grossman, a professor in that department, discussed with me the history and operations of his department’s WPs. When their series began, it was distributed in hard copy. The ease of distribution via the Internet has subsequently made it a viable experiment for a relatively small humanities department like ours too — since we have fewer resources to devote to this sort of enterprise.

Q: What issues are raised when putting up a humanities preprint site?

A: I guess I don’t know yet. It is meant as an experiment — we should have a better sense of the issues in a year or so. I don’t initially see why humanities WPs would raise issues that do not come up in social science WP series.

That said, humanities fields do not seem to have as clear a hierarchy of prestige journals. Getting papers accepted at the best journals can be extremely important in promotion and tenure decisions in social science departments; humanities departments still tend to be more book and chapter driven. But whether that will make any substantial difference I don’t yet know.

Q: You maybe saw the comment made by OA advocate Peter Suber: "More OA is better than less, so I applaud this initiative. But I must say that a classics repository for all classicists would be more useful than one limited to faculty from two distinguished departments." Does he have a point?

A: Sure he does. Our initiative is constrained by two considerations: quality control and resources. The papers on the site are not refereed. So, for example, we depend on personnel decisions at our two departments, and the advice of our departmental colleagues, with respect to posting graduate student work; and we need to provide some guidance to users of the site about the quality of work they might expect to find there.

The resource constraint is both a question of staff time and of server space: We don’t currently have the resources (or for that matter the expertise) to host a high-quality site featuring the work of the worldwide community of classical scholars.

Q: Do you envisage classics departments from other universities being invited to deposit their papers at your site in future?

A: We have left that as an open question. When we began this project we knew that we would have to control costs, yet did not have an accurate sense of how much resource it would entail. Before adding other universities we would have to look carefully at the feasibility. Based on the history of economics WP series, however, we might expect other universities to set up their own sites.

The long-term answer might be for a professional association to become the primary site for hosting classics WPs. Our goal from the beginning was to run a scalable experiment in the hope that it would lead to something of genuine value to those interested in classical scholarship, and the field of classics as a whole.

Q: Suber also commented "[A]n OAI-compliant repository would be more useful than a non-compliant repository." Was there any particular reason why you chose not to adopt an open metadata harvesting standard when developing the site?

A: This is beyond my expertise level. Basically, we went with what looked to be the best cost/benefit approach, with the goal being to get a useable site up quickly, using existing resources. We assumed that we would get feedback from various quarters after mounting the site.

Q: So you have built the service using standard web tools, rather than a specialist e-print solution like Southampton University's EPrints software, or MIT's DSpace?

A: Right, the site was designed and mounted by Princeton’s great departmental IT specialist, Donna Sanclemente, using standard web tools. Walter and I are full time teaching faculty without prior experience in hosting open access sites and Donna’s time for this project is limited. Since our goal was to get a workable site up quickly in hopes of getting helpful feedback, we felt it was more cost effective to go with tools we already knew.  

Q: Another point made by Suber was that a repository for both preprints and postprints would be more useful than a repository for preprints alone. Do you have any plans to include postprints? Would providing postprints raise any particular issues in the area of classics?

A: I agree it would be more useful. But I would be very hesitant to get involved in posting material that has been published under copyright not held by the author. This is not a classics-specific issue, but a general intellectual property issue. I have no idea of what sort of legal clearances we would need to get from copyright holders, or what sort of arrangement for payment to copyright holders we would need to make.

Q: In connection with PSWP, Brian Simboli, a librarian at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, raised this question on the Liblicense mailing list: "What are the patterns in humanities fields regarding whether journal publishers will accept items if they have been previously published as working papers or 'preprints'"? You are perhaps aware of the Ingelfinger Rule, which has posed difficulties for those working in the life sciences who want to post preprints on the Web. Can you see similar problems for classicists?

A: Here, we are guided by the experience of the social science WP sites that were our models — in social science fields WPs have become an accepted part of the publication process. My assumption is that humanities will prove to be more like social science than the life sciences in this regard.

Q: You say the working model for you was that of the Working Papers sites pioneered by social scientists. Does that imply that you do not envisage PSWP as an "open access" initiative as such? Perhaps you are also not very familiar with the open access movement?

A: My own knowledge of the open access movement is that of a layman who has read a few news reports, and so I hadn’t initially thought of our project as an open access initiative as such. Our goal, as classics faculty, is to further classical scholarship. Creating a WP site seemed to us an interesting (because as yet untried in the humanities) and relatively low-cost way to do so. If along the way we can also promote open access — which I regard as a good thing on general democratic principles — that’s a plus.

Q: Certainly OA today is mainly viewed as a science issue. Why do you think that is so, and do you think that in the long term OA has less, the same, or perhaps even more relevance to the humanities than to the sciences?

A: Humanities scholarship is a small area compared to natural science scholarship. Humanities work tends to be comparatively low-cost (few big labs or big grants) and individually authored. OA's immediate benefits are perhaps harder to measure in the humanities than in the sciences. OA for humanities is still something of a “green field.” There are a number of OA experiments in the area of classics; see for example, the site being developed by the Center for Hellenic Studies.  I am optimistic that these and other experiments will help to keep humanistic scholarship a vital and important part of the overall intellectual scene.

Q: So is OA an inherently good thing for the humanities or just something that some researchers may find interesting to provide?

A: By calling something an inherent (rather than an instrumental) good, you set the bar pretty high. I tend to think of OA as an instrumental good, but it may be understood as an intrinsic aspect of inherent goods (freedom, democracy).

Again, I don’t see why humanities would be a special case — if humanists are producing work that is of value to others, that value is increased by its accessibility. OA is in this sense an instrument for delivering something that may be of inherent value.

Q: I get the feeling that researchers in classics have shown themselves more willing to jump into the Internet pond than those in other humanities areas (the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, for instance, was launched in 1990, making it the second oldest online scholarly journal). Do you think this is merely coincidental, or do classicists today tend to be more receptive to new ways of doing things than their colleagues in other areas of the humanities?

A: Well, it’s certainly true that classicists have been out there in the forefront of humanities computing for a long time: the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae was a revolutionary textbase (and remains among the biggest textbase projects going). Perseus began as a classics site.

So as a result, classicists have been pretty attuned to computing for a full generation now, and I would guess we are on average more computing-oriented than other humanists (though I don’t know of any actual statistics on that). It didn’t hurt that David Packard got his PhD in Classics and has been a big supporter of classics computing from the beginning.

Q: You are perhaps aware of the growing trend for science research funders to request/require that their grantees make their papers available on the Web (not least the National Institutes of Health's policy on Enhancing Public Access to Archived Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research). Can you see a logic for funders in the humanities adopting a similar approach, or is funding in the humanities sufficiently different that such an approach may not be appropriate?

A: Humanities funding is mostly personal grants for leave time to individuals, and humanists still tend to publish a lot of books. So I would guess that this sort of requirement would be unlikely in the near term.

Q: Certainly there are calls for this in the UK. The draft proposal from Research Councils UK (Access to Research Outputs), for instance, proposes mandating all publicly-funded researchers, including those in the humanities, to self-archive their papers on the Web. It's not yet clear what the final RCUK policy will be, but do you think this is how the future will look: that in the way that researchers have been required to "publish or perish" they will find themselves also being required to ensure that their papers are freely available to all on the Web?

A: My guess is that it will increasingly be the case that material that is not web accessible will be less likely to be consulted or cited, and that this will in turn result in a lot of pressure on authors and publishers to find ways to make academic work web accessible.

Yet the crunch is likely to come in quality control (to get back that issue). Academic publishing, personnel decisions, and indeed the entire modern enterprise of scholarship is predicated on detailed and careful peer review. That costs quite a lot (many hours of work by pretty highly paid people are involved).

The costs are now (in part) covered by the profits made by academic publishers. In current business models, those profits depend on ownership of intellectual property as defined by copyright law.

Q: Would you say that peer review is as important in the humanities as in the sciences?

A: Peer review is at least as important in humanities as in the sciences — maybe more so in that we do not run experiments that can be independently reproduced. The quality control issue seems to me to be a hurdle that needs to be got over in order for the OA revolution to be completed.

Q: Of course that assumes that OA and peer review are incompatible — a notion that OA advocates would strenuously reject. Commenting on PSWP, Margaret Landesman, a librarian at the University of Utah, suggested that the classics community maybe doesn’t need "formerly published" journals any more. As she put it: "Why not keep the preprint archives and dispense with the journals." Peer review could still take place, but the whole process could be done electronically — which is the Bryn Mawr Classical Review model isn’t it? Moreover, if authors retained copyright the need to obtain permission to archive postprints on the Web would go away. Does that make sense to you?

A: There are several issues here: one is the relative importance of journal articles as opposed to books or book chapters: As long as humanities remains strongly book-oriented (which may change, of course), shifting to electronic publication of humanities journals would be only a partial solution.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review is an important success story in electronic humanities publication, but peer review/quality control concerns are less demanding when publishing scholarly book reviews than when publishing scholarly articles.

The editorial work that ensures proper peer review for scholarly books and articles is very time-consuming. It must be done to a very high standard if the enterprise of scholarship is to be sustained. Following the Bryn Mawr model, universities (or professional organisations) might choose to provide senior scholars with appropriate incentives to do the necessary editorial work on electronic journals (or even books).

Universities work hard to cut “non-essential” costs. It is a matter of persuading universities and professional organisations that it is in their interest to assume costs that are currently paid for by the publishing market. That is a daunting, but certainly not an impossible, challenge.

Q: Does OA provide benefits to researchers that were not possible historically? If so, what benefits?

A: It seems to me that it a case of making things of value (the results of scholarship) readily available to a very wide audience of researchers (professional and amateur), rather than restricting them to the privileged elite that happens to have access to great research libraries.

Of course even those who do have access to major libraries may be encouraged to read more widely because the material is “right there” in front of them. So there is increased potential for cross-appropriation of ideas and facts.

Q: What future developments do you see for a) PSWP b) OA in the humanities in general?

A: I hope that our site will grow in the number of papers we offer and the number of downloads. Beyond that, I am keeping an open mind. If there is a substantial readership for the Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, then I would hope that it would promote similar (or better!) sites in other humanities fields — and thereby push towards the long term goal of making more and better scholarship available to bigger and more diverse audiences.

The extension of “what is potentially known” is, I believe, extremely healthy for democratic societies — indeed, that is the subject of my current research.

Q: Can you envisage value in, say, attaching blogs to specific articles, and encouraging feedback/comments etc.?

A: There might be value in that, but my very limited experience with the blogosphere doesn’t encourage me to move in that direction. Blogging at this point seems to be best suited to matters in which opinion is of greater moment than expert knowledge; in matters of scholarship, where expertise does have a big role to play, I’d prefer to leave it to individual commentators to contact individual authors.

Q: Finally, do you think that OA is "inevitable and optimal" as OA advocates often put it? If so, what are the compelling reasons for arguing that that is the case in the area of the humanities in general, and in classics in particular?

A: Inevitable is a strong word and one I tend to avoid when speaking of social phenomena, like politics, economics, or OA. I think that there will be strong pressure for more OA over time, as students and scholars become more and more used to doing their research online. Optimal must of course depend on implementation.

So I’d say that OA is a very good bet, and stands to be a lot closer to optimal than any prior information regime I know of.

Humanists, whose work can be made readily accessible across disciplinary lines (in a way that is more difficult for highly mathematical fields), are likely to benefit disproportionately from OA — and should, therefore, have every reason to support it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A real tragedy

In writing my recent article about the Royal Society's position statement on open access I contacted a number of Fellows of the Society, including some of those who had written an open letter objecting to the "largely negative stance" taken in the statement.

After publishing the article I received an e-mail from Professor Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs. Professor Roberts, who signed the open letter, had been travelling when I e-mailed my questions to him, so I was unable to incorporate his views into the article. Given the degree of interest that the Royal Society's position statement has generated I thought there would be value in publishing Professor Robert's response separately.

Professor Roberts is a Nobel Laureate, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a research editorial board member for the open access journal PLoS Biology, and senior executive editor of the journal Nucleic Acids, which is published by Oxford University
Press and in January 2005 became the first traditional journal to go open access.


Q: Why did you sign the letter to the Royal Society?

A: I signed the letter because it expressed my own sentiments perfectly. I am a strong advocate of open access, and write about it and speak in favour of it whenever possible. I was appalled when I first read the Royal Society's statement.


Q: The Royal Society says that the open letter is based on a misunderstanding, since the Royal Society's position statement is only a re-statement of views it published on 24th November, and that these views were arrived at after extensive discussions that took place in February 2004. At that time these views were also approved by the Council for the Royal Society. Were you aware of those discussions? Did you take part in them? Did you object at the time?

A: The first I heard of this was when BioMed Central's Matt Cockerill sent me the statement. I had personally contacted the Royal Society about this issue several years ago and had spoken with Lord May [the former president of the Royal Society] about it. I was basically brushed off. However, I was not consulted or even forewarned of this statement.

In fact, I first drew the attention of this matter to the Royal Society in January 2001 (almost five years ago). At that time I had written an editorial piece for PNAS about open access and was lead author, and main protagonist, of a letter to Science about the issue.  Now they call for a study — just 5 years too late!


Q: The Royal Society says that it has adopted its position on open access partly because of concerns raised by the mathematics, chemistry and physics communities within the Society, and that most of the signatories of the letter are from the life sciences. Is that your understanding?

A: I know that most of the signatories are from the life sciences.  I have no knowledge of who has expressed opinions against open access. However, I would note that the physicists have had a form of open access of pre-publication results for a long time (thanks to Paul Ginsparg and his preprint server).  The chemists seem to be held hostage by the American Chemical Society, which makes exorbitant charges for its journals and has firmly opposed open access, even to its older publications.


Q: The Royal Society says that the letter has been signed by just "a small number of the 1,274 Fellows." Is it fair to view the letter as representing only a minority view amongst Royal Society Fellows?

A: We won't know if it is a minority view because the Society has never been polled on this issue. Furthermore, I am still surprised that many scientists, and I suspect many Fellows of the Royal Society, are not even aware of the issue, or have not given it any real thought — so for such a poll to be effective there would need to be some education of the participants.


Q: How would you like to see the Royal Society respond to the letter?

A: I would have hoped to see a more conciliatory position taken and especially I would have liked to see some action. For the last three years there have been lots of words, basically opposing open access by calling for studies or more thought, but no actions.  My mother taught me that actions speak louder than words.


Q: Has the Royal Society lost touch with its Fellows on this issue?

A:  I think that the Royal Society has not only lost touch with its Fellows on this issue, but is out of touch with the pace of the younger scientists whose interests it should be looking after. Most young scientists don't even know where the library is these days. If they can't access the literature from their computer then it might as well not exist for them. So much for seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants! This is a real tragedy.


Q: The Royal Society's approach to open access is in stark contrast to that of the Wellcome Trust (which has mandated its funded researchers to make their papers open access). Why do you think that is? And what does the contrast signify?

A: This question gets to the heart of the matter. The Wellcome Trust has been bold and imaginative, and is to be applauded. I would note that they have no financial interests in opposing open access. The Royal Society by its own admission makes some profits from its publications, as do many scientific societies. If you really want to know why people do things I always think that one should follow the money first.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Not written in the stars

Like any good drama, the open access story is one full of twists and turns, dramatic unmaskings, and unexpected reversals of fortune. This has been so from day one, and it has been particularly so in recent weeks, as the spotlight has fallen on the Royal Society.

As previously reported, on 24th November the Royal Society posted on its web site a position statement on open access. Widely interpreted as an attempt to derail the Research Council UK's proposed policy on access to research output, the statement warned that OA could be "disastrous for the research community", and cautioned against introducing "policies that force researchers to adopt new models that are untried and untested" without first exploring "the likely costs and benefits to all."

Two weeks later, on 7th December, 42 disgruntled Fellows of the Royal Society — including James Watson, the scientist who discovered the structure of DNA, and Sir John Sulston, who headed the British end of the human genome project — responded by sending an open letter to the president of the Society, Lord Rees of Ludlow. Expressing disappointment that it had taken a "largely negative stance on open access", the letter urged the Society to support, rather than seek to delay, the RCUK policy.

More evidence

In its turn, the Fellows' letter elicited a reply from Lord Rees. "We certainly do not, as your letter implies," he wrote to the dissident Fellows "take a 'negative stance' to open access. We are simply concerned that open access is achieved without the risk of unintended damage to peer-review, quality control and long term accessibility of the scientific literature."

Lord Rees went on to list a number of specific issues he had with open access, and concluded that before the proposed RCUK policy was introduced "[W]e believe that a study should be commissioned to assess the relative merits of the various models that have been proposed under the rather broad banner of 'open access'".

OA advocates were quick to point out that since the RCUK was proposing self-archiving, not new publishing models, the Royal Society's stance was based on a misunderstanding. "[M]ost of the RS doubts focus on the viability of OA journals even though the RCUK proposal mandates deposit in OA archives, not submission to OA journals," commented a frustrated Peter Suber, on his blog Open Access News. "I can't count the number of times this misunderstanding has been corrected."

On the American Scientific Open Access Mailing List (AmSci), meanwhile, OA advocate Stevan Harnad was reminding list members that physicists have in any case been posting their papers into arXiv.org for fourteen years without any negative impact on journals. For that reason, he said, any further studies would be redundant, and would unnecessarily delay open access. "If 14 years of evidence of peaceful co-existence between self-archiving and journal publishing is not evidence enough, what is?" he asked.

Calls for more evidence, however, have become a mantra that no self-respecting supporter of the existing system can resist. Speaking to the BBCs' John Sudworth, for instance, the president of the Institute of Physics (and former vice president of the Royal Society) Sir John Enderby, said: "What the Royal Society has said — which seems to me to be blindingly obvious — [is] that before we abandon an economic model which has served us terribly well over the years we should make sure that any replacement is sustainable."

Once again, Sir John was clearly focused on economic models, not self-archiving. In short, the two sides appeared destined to continue talking through each other.

Greater vehemence

What was new in the discussion, however, was a greater vehemence. After asking the Royal Society for a comment on the Fellows' letter, for instance, I received a surprise e-mail from the Royal Society's senior manager of policy communication, Bob Ward.

Apparently convinced that he was unmasking the real villain of the piece he wrote: "[Y]ou may be interested to learn that the open letter from Fellows of the Royal Society on open access appears to have been at least partly co-ordinated by BioMed Central, a commercial publisher of open access journals. Matthew Cockerill, the publisher of BioMed Central, registered the domain name of the web page at which the open letter was posted for signature."

Moreover, when the letter had been sent to the Society, Ward added, it had named as contact person the marketing communications manager at BioMed Central, Grace Baynes.

The implication, it appeared, was that by co-ordinating the letter BMC had acted inappropriately, presumably on the grounds that it stood to gain financially from the successful implementation of the RCUK proposal.

"It is no secret that BioMed Central and others helped to co-ordinate the letter (for example by registering the domain name that was used)," responded Baynes, adding indignantly: "Given that many of the FRS's concerned are on our boards, or edit our journals, it was in no way inappropriate for us to do so."

As allegations about its involvement in the letter began to appear in news stories, OA advocates also leapt to BMC's defence, pointing out (again) that since the RCUK proposal called for self-archiving, not OA publishing, BMC had little to gain from co-ordinating the letter.

"I know that the Royal Society is confused about this issue, but in fact the RCUK policy does not mandate submission to OA journals, only deposit in OA archives," repeated Suber on his blog. "BMC has a financial interest in OA journals but not in OA archiving (apart from its small Open Repository service)."

Shot in the foot

As the debate raged it appeared clear that the Royal Society was in danger of shooting itself in the foot. One of the signatories of the Fellows' letter, Robin Lovell-Badge, for instance, told The Scientist that while he hadn't been aware that the letter was coordinated by BMC, it would have made no difference if he had known. "In fact it's rather insulting to [suggest] that I've been manipulated by BioMed Central," he added, "because I haven't."

Meanwhile, the number of Fellows signing the letter was continuing to grow. Within a week 61 Fellows (there are 1,274 Fellows of the Royal Society) had signed, including five Nobel Prize winners.

By now OA advocates were also keen to turn the allegation around, pointing out that the Royal Society had far more to gain from sinking the RCUK policy than BMC had from supporting it. "The Royal Society has a financial interest in maintaining subscriptions," commented Suber on his blog. "I believe that its subscriptions are not threatened by the RCUK policy. But if it wants to argue that its fears are justified, then it has to start by admitting its financial interest, which is much stronger than BMC's."

In his usual colourful way, Harnad speculated that the only people in the Royal Society who actually had a problem with open access were those working in its journal publishing division. "I'll bet this is not really the voice of the RS at all: It's just the pub-ops tail wagging the regal pooch."

Like a divorcing couple arguing over who gets the kids, both sides were now clearly locked in a dance of death, hurling accusations and insults at each other.

This reached its apotheosis when Sir John implied that open access was akin to communism. "I actually know of no economic model, apart from some extreme Marxist one," he said in an aggrieved voice to the BBC's John Sudworth, "where it is the producer who pays rather than the consumer."

Public good issue

In invoking the bogeyman of Karl Marx, Sir John appeared to underline how out of touch defenders of the traditional journal publishing system had become. However, when I e-mailed him to point out that RCUK was not proposing OA publishing, but self-archiving, and asked if he disagreed with the claim that 14 years of self-archiving without disastrous consequences suggested there was no threat to journal subscriptions, he replied: "If the version of record (as opposed to the partially edited and refereed version) were freely available, then with Google-type search engines all content can be both accessed and indexed, and [as a consequence] subscription income would dry up."

The truth, perhaps, is that publishers, and their apologists, understand only too well the difference between self-archiving and OA publishing, but have concluded that it suits their purposes better to focus on OA publishing.

On the other hand, one could argue that in constantly insisting that self-archiving offers no threat to publishers, OA advocates are being somewhat disingenuous. When the question was put directly to Robin Lovell-Badge by the BBC, he replied: "Clearly subscriptions will fall, yes."

And it's not as if OA advocates haven’t thought it through. As Harnad put it on AmSci: "Even if the imaginable risks were eventually to prove to be real, and self-archiving were to lead to cancellations and a transition to the OA publishing model, would that be grounds for renouncing the demonstrated benefits to research impact and progress?"

In other words, this is essentially a public good issue, not a question of whether or not OA represents a threat to science publishers. And who better to referee issues of the public good than the Government? Unfortunately, the UK Government appears to be deaf in one ear.

Level playing field?

We should recall that when, in November 2004, the Government rejected the UK Science & Technology Select Committee's recommendation to support open access it said it was doing so on the grounds that it believed its role should be to "facilitate a level playing field".

It now seems that what the Government meant to say was "Let's support the status quo". In any case, it has certainly not operated a level playing field when listening to the two sides of the OA debate — as evidenced by a recent Freedom of Information Act request made to the UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) by SPARC Europe's David Prosser.

Prosser asked the DTI how often the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation for the UK, and head of the DTI, Lord Sainsbury of Turville had met with publishers and researchers in the past two years.

This time the unmasking was far more interesting — for what Prosser learned is that Lord Sainsbury has a special place in his heart for Sir Crispin Davis, the CEO of the world's largest STM publisher Reed Elsevier.

As Suber explained on his blog, the FOIA request shows that "Lord Sainsbury met with OA opponents roughly twice as often as with OA proponents, and met with the Reed Elsevier CEO three times more often than with any other stakeholder." The FOIA documents also show, added Suber, that "DTI apparently undertook no analysis of its own on OA."

Far from being level, it seems, the playing field is heavily tilted in favour of rich and powerful publishers.

Bamboozled

There is here a telling parallel with the drama being played out in the music and movie industries. Confronted by the challenges posed by the Internet, not least the threat of P2P technologies, the entertainment industry has — like science publishers — been desperately clinging to the past.

To this end, David Holtzman recently argued in Business Week, "key industries [have] bamboozled Congress and much of the public into believing that their wares deserve the same protection that was awarded to say, a patent for blast furnaces in the 20th Century."

In the same way, it seems, science publishers have bamboozled the British Government, whose science policy is managed by the Department of Trade & Industry. All too conscious, no doubt, that STM journal publishing makes a significant contribution to the UK economy, the DTI has gone along with the thesis that industrial-age business models need to be protected from the harsh winds of the information age.

What this ignores, of course, is that businesses need to adapt to new conditions, not seek to outlaw or ban them when they pose a threat to the settled world of industry incumbents. Indeed, argues Holtzman, the consequences of doing so are "not just ethical or aesthetic. They are financial — and eventually will lead to economic isolation."

As Holtzman points out, while protectionism may provide a short-term lifeline to individual companies and industries, it often does so by risking the future prosperity of national economies, particularly those economies most heavily invested in outdated business models.

And, ironically, in the information age those economies most wedded to outdated business models are increasingly not the developing nations, but the developed nations.

Inconsequentiality

Holtzman warns, therefore, that as we move from the industrial age to the information age, or from atoms to bits, developed countries "must avoid the trap of applying Industrial Era principles to businesses enabled by the Information Age — or face the consequence of becoming inconsequential."

In short, if developed nations insist on clinging to industrial-age business models then information-age savvy developing nations are likely to out-compete them, or perhaps merely bypass them.

For science publishers the signs are already there. On the same day that the Fellows' letter was sent (7th December), for instance, SciDev.Net reported that the Chinese government has launched a campaign to encourage Chinese researchers to publish their results in domestic — rather than international — journals, and to place their results in free archives.

Explaining the reason for the campaign, Wu Bo'er, director of the Department of Facilities and Financial Support of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology" told SciDev.NET: "At present, when the results of government-funded research is published in foreign journals, Chinese researchers often have to pay reviewing fees for their papers to be published in these journals. After that, China's institutes and other researchers have to spend more than 100 million yuan (US$12.4 million) each year to buy these foreign journals."

Good news

The good news is that, in the US at least, politicians in the developed world are beginning to heed the dangers. All too conscious that publishers succeeded in pressuring NIH director Elias Zerhouni to water down the NIH policy on enhancing public access to research — which policy Congress had instructed NIH to develop — there have been a number of recent new initiatives focused on fixing the problem.

Most significantly, on 7th December (there's that date again!), US Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced a bill into the US Senate that would mandate OA to publicly-funded medical research within four months of its publication.

Officially titled the American Centre for Cures Act of 2005, but informally known as the CURES Act, the bill is concerned with more than just access to research. However, as Suber explained on his blog, it goes beyond the NIH access policy in several important ways:

"It requires free online access and does not merely request it. It shortens the permissible delay to four months. It extends the OA policy beyond the NIH to research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Healthcare Research. Finally, it explicitly says that non-compliance may be a ground for the funding agency to refuse future funding."

Time will tell whether CURES will succeed. Either way, we can certainly expect a few more twists and turns in the unfolding drama of open access before the play is done.

An important turning point will surely come when governments fully accept that the public good is far better served by supporting open access than by listening to publishers' lobbyists — and then enact the necessary legislation to make it happen.

But the final turn in the plot will probably not come until science publishers accept that they are not — as they appear to believe — indispensable. As the founder of BioMed Central Vitek Tracz put it when talking to me last year, "It is not written in the stars that we have to have science publishers, and it is not a moral imperative for us to defend them."

Clearly most science publishers still have some way to go in their thinking. Indeed, it turns out that the reason why the final RCUK policy has yet to be announced is because it is still negotiating with the Royal Society.

Now we know why that venerable institution published a position statement in November!