A CHORUS of boos: publishers offer their “solution” to public access

As expected, a coalition of subscription based journal publishers has responded to the White House’s mandate that federal agencies develop systems to make the research they fund available to public by offering to implement the system themselves.

This system, which they call CHORUS (for ClearingHouse for the Open Research of the United Status) would set up a site where people could search for federally funded articles, which they could then retrieve from the original publisher’s website. There is no official proposal, just a circulating set of principles along with a post at the publisher  blog The Scholarly Kitchen and a few news stories (1,2), so I’ll have to wait to comment on details. But I’ve seen enough to know that this would be a terrible, terrible idea – one I hope government agencies don’t buy in to.

The Association of American Publishers, who are behind this proposal, have been, and continue to be, the most vocal opponent of public access policies. They have been trying for years to roll back the NIH’s Public Access Policy and to defeat any and all efforts to launch new public access policies at the federal and state levels. And CHORUS does not reflect a change of heart on their part – just last month they filed a lengthy (and incredibly deceptive) brief opposing a bill in the California Assembly would provide public access to state funded research.

Putting the AAP in charge of implementing public access policies is thus the logical equivalent of passing a bill mandating background checks for firearms purchasing and putting the NRA in charge of developing and operating the database. They would have no interest in making the system any more than minimally functional. Indeed, given that the AAP clearly thinks that public access policies are bad for their businesses, they would have a strong incentive to make their implementation of a public access policy as difficult to use and as functionless as possible in order to drive down usage and make the policies appear to be a failure.

You can already see this effect at work  – the CHORUS document makes no mention of enabling, let alone encouraging, text mining of publicly funded research papers, even though the White House clearly  stated that these new policies must enable text mining as well as access to published papers. Subscription publishers have an awful track record in enabling reuse of their content, and nobody should be under any illusions that CHORUS will be any different.

The main argument the CHORUS publishers are making to funding agencies is that allowing them to implement a solution will save the agencies money, since they would not have to develop and maintain a system of their own, and would not have to pay to convert author manuscripts into a common, distributable format. But this is true only if you look at costs in the narrowest possible sense.

First, there is no need for any agency to develop their own system. The federal government already has PubMed Central – a highly functional, widely used and popular system. This system already does everything CHORUS is supposed to do, and offers seamless full-text searching (something not mentioned in the CHORUS text), as well as integration with numerous other databases at the National Library of Medicine. It would not be costless to expand PMC to handle papers from other agencies, and there would be some small costs associated with handling each submitted paper. However, these costs would be trivial compared to the costs of the funding the research in question, and would produce tremendous value for the public. What’s more, most of these costs would be eliminated if publishers agreed to deposit their final published version of the paper directly to PMC – something most have steadfastly refused to do.

But even if we stipulate that running their own public access systems would cost agencies some money, the idea that CHORUS is free is risible. There is a reason most subscription publishers have opposed public access policies – they are worried that, as more and more articles become freely available, that their negotiating position with libraries will be weakened and they will lose subscription revenues as a consequence. Since a large fraction of these subscription revenues (on the order of 10%, or around $1 billion/year ) come from the federal government through overhead payments to libraries, the federal government stands to save far, far, far more money in lower subscription expenditures than even the most gilded public access system could ever cost to develop and operate.

CHORUS is clearly an effort on the part of publishers to minimize the savings that will ultimately accrue to the federal government, other funders and universities from public access policies. If CHORUS is adopted, publishers will without a doubt try to fold the costs of creating and maintaining the system into their subscription/site license charges – the routinely ask libraries to pay for all of their “value added” services. Thus not only would potential savings never materialize, the government would end up paying the costs of CHORUS indirectly.

Publishers desperately want the federal agencies covered by the White House public access policy to view CHORUS as something new and different – the long awaited “constructive” response from publishers to public access mandates. But there is nothing new here. Publishers proposed this “link out” model when PMC was launched and when the NIH Public Access policy came into effect, and it was rejected both time. Publishers hate PMC not because it is expensive, or even because it leads to a (small) drop in their ad revenue. They hate it because it works, is popular and makes most people who use it realize that we don’t really need publishers to do all the things they insist only they can do.

CHORUS is little more than window dressing on the status quo – a proposal that would not only undermine the laudable goals of the White House policy, but would invariably cost the government money. Let’s all hope this CHORUS is silenced.

 

 

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21 Comments

  1. Posted June 5, 2013 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this cogent analysis of why CHORUS can’t work, despite its superficial appeal. I’d also point you to Heather Morrison’s c omment on Science‘s coverage of this: that the US government has no direct control over publishers, since it’s the researchers that it funds.

    • David Wojick
      Posted June 5, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

      CHORUS is not about control; it is a bargain. The publishers get to keep theveyeballs.

      • Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        Oh come on. CHORUS is all about control – the lost ad revenue from eyeballs on year-old articles is not their concern. CHORUS is all about maintaining control so that PMC and other alternatives never gain traction. Publishers are concerned is that public access will work and will make people realize that we are paying publishers billions of dollars a year to do something that could be done far cheaper and far better.

        • David Wojick
          Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

          PMC steals eyeballs and that is the publisher’s driving concern with CHORUS. They are agreeing to green OA for US based content, which is a major concession.

          • Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

            It doesn’t “steal” eyeballs because those eyeballs don’t belong to publishers in the first place.

            And it’s not a “concession” – that assumes that the content rightfully belongs to publishers. The only concession that happened (I would call it a capitulation) is that the government agreed to needlessly delay public access in order to sustain a business model (subscription publishing) that manifestly fails to deliver a product worth paying for.

          • David Wojick
            Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

            The publishers and the government have work to do. Your Utopian view that none of this should be happening is simply irrelevant. You have no real criticism of CHORUS, just of the world as a whole.

          • Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            I have very specific criticisms of CHORUS which you would know if you’d read my post instead of just commenting on it. They are:

            1) Contrary to what publishers claim, CHORUS will not save the government money

            2) Because publishers have the wrong incentives with regards to operating a repository of government funded papers, they should not be the ones to do it.

  2. David Wojick
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    If your goal is to drive publishers out of business via “lower subscription expenditues” then indeed CHORUS has no appeal. That is not the government’s goal.

    • Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      My goal is to provide scientists and the public will immediate free access to all of the scientific and medical literature. Publishers who are unwilling to do that SHOULD go out of business.

      • David Wojick
        Posted June 5, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        Your goal is contradictory, for without publishers there is no such literature. Perhaps you have a different model in mind?

        • Posted June 5, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

          Well, you’re clearly not paying attention. There are many publishers who make their contents immediately freely available and are thriving financially. PLOS and BMC being the business.

          The reason that ~80% of the literature is behind subscription based firewalls is that the remaining publishers are unwilling to adapt their business practices to actually serve the research community and public.

          • David Wojick
            Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

            I see, you are talking about gold OA, but the US is going for green OA, so your comments are irrelevant to the present policy.

          • Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            The current policy is misguided because it establishes a tension between its goals – free access to government funded research – and its means – subscription based publishing.

          • David Wojick
            Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

            Your dislike of the present policy is not a valid criticism of the publisher’s attempts to meet it.

          • Posted June 5, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

            The publishers shaped the policy and have now put forth a proposal to meet it that would greatly diminish its impact.

          • Posted June 8, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

            Priorities

            Michael Eisen is basically right on the fundamentals: There would be a huge conflict of interest if compliance with the White House Open Access (OA) mandate were left to publishers instead of researchers and their institutions, and publishers would do everything possible to sabotage the policy.

            Nothing much can be said in favor of David Wojick’s points except that it is true that Michael’s focus is largely on Gold OA publishing, PMC, and re-use rights (“Libre OA”) over and above free online access rights (“Gratis OA”), whereas the White House Open Access mandate is for Green OA self-archiving in researchers’ OA repositories.

            Further re-use rights are also more controversial than free online access rights because they encourage publisher embargoes (to prevent immediate free-riding by rival publishers); nor are they needed nearly as urgently and universally as immediate free online access is needed by authors and users in all disciplines today. (As much Libre OA as users need and authors wish to provide will certainly follow after universal Green Gratis OA has been successfully mandated and provided globally, but it must not be made into a needless obstacle today.)

            For a different perspective on the self-serving attempt of the publishers’ lobby to try to undermine the intent of the White House OA mandate under the pretext of helping it along and saving money, see: <a href="http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/1009-.html"CHORUS&quot;: Yet Another Trojan Horse from the Publishing Industry.

  3. Hans Pfeiffenberger
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    We should also suspect that publishers plan on making this completely disfunctional for (most of) real research by compartmentalizing their kind of “open” scientific content into dozens of national access points: CHOR-US, CHOR-UK, CHOR-DE, CHOR-EU, …

    BTW: How would they handle access at the publishers sites? Every US-IP address gets access? Only requests with a http-referer tag = CHORUS? There will be more stumbling blocks, probably hidden until after fait acompli.

  4. Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Obviously the burden is on publishers to show what they’ve got here, but Mike, I wanted to double check something. You say most publishers refuse to deposit in PMC, and publishers say 70% of PMC content is from non-OA publishers. Are both statements correct?

    • Posted June 7, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Most of the 70% they are referring to is author manuscripts, not publisher versions.

  5. Posted June 11, 2013 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    Interesting to see David Wojick’s comments assuming Michael’s “goal is to drive publishers out of business”. I see this a lot, said about me as well as him. Not to speak for Michael, but for myself I really don’t care one way or the other whether existing publishers survive. All I care about is that the world has immediate and unrestricted access to read and reuse its research at a reasonable cost. If existing publishers are able to facilitate that, then great! If not, then they can get out of the road and we’ll use new ones that can (or none at all).

    In other words, I care about the destination — open access. Publishers can choose for themselves whether they want to be on board the train, or obstructions on the line. What’s clear is that CHORUS won’t get us to that destination.

  6. Konrad Scheffler
    Posted June 27, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

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