Rumored executive order would change landscape of UC subscription partnerships

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Prominent Nobel laureate and chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs Rich Roberts has no online access to a paper he co-authored because his institution lacks a subscription to academic journal Nature Microbiology.

Roberts is one of 21 American Nobel laureates who submitted an open letter to President Donald Trump on Monday urging him to approve a rumored plan to make federally funded research free of cost and immediately accessible after publication. UC Berkeley’s Randy Schekman, who founded eLife — an open access scientific journal — led the Nobel laureates in their letter.

“The old model of subscription publication is not a good fit for the modern electronic era,” the letter stated. “The U.S. academic enterprise can and must adjust to a more open form of scientific communication removing the middleman to deliver the fruits of government-funded research to all as quickly as possible.”

The letter led by Schekman contrasted a December 2019 letter to the president, signed by 137 of the leading publishers and nonprofit scientific societies in the United States. Some of the signatories included Macmillan Publishers, McGraw-Hill Education and Elsevier.

While the UC system has initiated open access to university-authored research with two of its new contracts, it is still negotiating with Elsevier after forgoing its contract renewal in February 2019. According to campus librarian Jeff MacKie-Mason, the rumored policy could put more pressure on Elsevier and other publishers to be more responsive to the open-access requirements of their university customers.

“This would effectively nationalize the valuable American intellectual property that we produce and force us to give it away to the rest of the world for free,” according to the letter from the publishers. “This risks reducing exports and negating many of the intellectual property protections the Administration has negotiated with our trading partners.”

The letter added that the cost shift could place an “additional burden” on taxpayers and undermine both the marketplace and American innovation.

Current regulation mandates that proprietary journal articles reporting on federally funded research must be made available for free after 12 months of publication. The December 2019 letter specified that the publishers both support and enable open-access models. Removing the current 12-month embargo, however, would make investment for publishing these articles “very difficult,” according to the letter from the publishers.

“Existing policies … were a carefully considered, collaboratively developed compromise … under a regulatory framework that mandates immediate access to articles, many scientific societies and other scholarly publishers would be unable to continue their work,” said a letter from Ian Moss, chief executive officer of the International Association for Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers to Kelvin Droegemeier, a science adviser to the Trump administration.

Schekman alleged that commercial publishers run on one of the largest profit margins in the world. As such, publishers who make a lot of profit may be opposed to looser open-access policies due to fear of potential profit loss.

Schekman harkened back to his personal experience founding the eLife publication. While the journal was started with funding from private sources, it is now self-sustaining. The journal neither profits nor sustains losses.

“The subscription model is an anachronism; it should go away. UC librarians are uniformly in favor of an open-access model because it would be a tremendous savings to their budget,” Schekman said. “I’m sure they would be happy to deploy their budget to help scholars pay for open-access fees.”

MacKie-Mason added that to gain access to some scientific results, the university either has to pay “extremely high” prices, which average about $25 per article, or borrow the results from other libraries to a limited extent.

More importantly, however, the potential executive order would be an important step in leveling the playing field for smaller universities or researchers at “less wealthy” institutions, according to Brian Kobilka, Nobel laureate and Stanford University scientist.

“Publishing science should not be a money-making proposition. When I make a discovery, I want everyone to know about it,” Roberts said. “When I do science, I do it so it benefits mankind, not some publisher.”

Contact Alex Casey at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @acasey.