WTF? The University of California sides with publishers against the public

The University of California system spends nearly $40 million every year to buy access to academic journals, even though many of the articles are written, reviewed, and edited by UC professors. So you’d think the cash-strapped UC system would leap to back any effort to undermine the absurd science publishing system.

You’d think. But you’d be wrong.

Assemblymember Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) introduced a bill – The California Taxpayer Access to Publicly Funded Research Act (AB 609) – that would require recipients of state-funded research grants to make copies of their work freely available through the California State Library within six months of their initial publication.

Although I think that the six month embargo is unnecessary – there’s no reason not to make publicly funded works immediately freely available – I sent in a letter supporting the bill, as it establishes the state’s interest in ensuring public access to taxpayer funded research.

Hearings into the bill were scheduled for last week, but were delayed so that the bill could be modified in order to earn the support of the University of California – the flagship higher education system in the state, and the host of millions of dollars in state-funded research.

When I first heard this I was excited. “Finally,” I thought, “UC is stepping up to the plate and taking a strong stance in support of open access.” Then I read the letter UC had sent.

Adrian Diaz, the University of California’s Legislative Director, wrote that UC was “supportive of the legislation’s intent” but would only support it if the embargo period were extended to one year, and if its own grant programs were exempted from the bill’s requirements.

I was dumbfounded.

Here is Diaz’s rationale for extending the embargo:

The University recommends that the bill’s six month publication embargo period be amended to conform to federal public access policies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy and the recent public access policy direction to federal agencies from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) both permit a twelve month embargo period for  published manuscripts. We believe that consistency between the different public access policies to which our researchers must comply will help avoid confusion and promote compliance with the law. A twelve month embargo period will also allow publishers, including small publishers and scholarly societies, to meet their needs for revenue while ensuring long-term public access to published research. UC believes that a twelve month embargo period will facilitate publication in leading scholarly journals, which may reject manuscripts for which the permissible embargo is only six months.

This is nothing short of insane.

When the White House issued its “public access” policy a few months ago, in which they directed Federal agencies to make works they fund available to the public within 12 months, I argued that open access supporters should not celebrate because this was going to establish a year long delay as the law of the land. And here is the first evidence that I was right.

But it is even more troubling that a university whose libraries are facing budget cuts every year while they try to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of journal subscriptions would cite publishers’ need for revenue as their guiding principle when judging policies related to scholarly publishing.

How can Diaz DEFEND this system?? A system in which universities fork over billions of dollars of public money every year in order to buy back access to papers researchers gave to publishers for free? A system that is bankrupting our libraries? A system that denies people access to research their tax dollars paid for?

What is wrong with the University? Is it so married to the status quo that it can not see that it is being immeasurably harmed by it? Is it so out of touch with its public mission that it reflexively sides with the establishment even when it means unambiguously thwarting a public good?

For decades universities have sat idly by doing nothing while the serials crisis loomed. They have been silent as immense change has come to scholarly publishing. And now, when they finally speak up, this is what they say?

THIS is why we can’t have nice things.


I sent the following letter to Mr. Diaz and other UC officials:

Adrian Diaz
Legislative Director
Office of State and Governmental Relations
1130 K Street, Suite 340
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Mr. Diaz,

I am writing in regards to your letter of April 12th sent to the Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee regarding AB 609, The California Taxpayer Access to Publicly Funded Research Act.

Your letter expresses support for the legislation’s intent, but conditions UC support for the bill on a lengthening of the embargo period from six months to one year. I urge you to reconsider this position.

You write that a longer delay is necessary to “allow publishers to meet their needs for revenue”, yet this is true only for publishers that use a subscription-based business model that is outdated and no longer serves the interests of the research community or the public that funds it.

Journals that fund their operations through subscriptions have no choice but to restrict access to the content to subscribers. Thus the business model is fundamentally incompatible with what should be the goal of public research funders and public institutions of higher learning: to make the results of taxpayer funded research freely and immediately available to the public.

Fortunately, there is an alternative.

In 2001 I co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS), a San Francisco based non-profit publisher of scientific and medical journals that has pioneered “open access” – a business model in which the costs of publishing are covered by research funders, but the finished product immediately freely available. PLOS is a thriving company with a diverse portfolio in biology and medicine, including the world’s largest biomedical research journal, PLOS ONE, which will publish in excess of 25,000 articles in 2013.

PLOS’s success has led to an explosion of open access publishers, including several California startups, as well as new imprints from commercial publishers and scientific societies. And a few months ago the three largest private biomedical research funders in the world – the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US, the Wellcome Trust in the UK and the Max Planck Institute in Germany – collaborated to launch a high-profile open access journal called eLife.

In calling for the embargo period in AB 609 to be extended, the University of California is taking the position that subscription based publishing is in need of protection, even though there is a clear, California based alternative that would achieve the public access to taxpayer funded research you say you support.

Subscription based publishers – both commercial and non-profit – have long been thorns in the side of the UC library system, demanding ever increasing and unjustifiable fees – last year it was close to $40m – to provide faculty and students with access to publications that should and could have been made freely available. I urge you to speak with cash strapped librarians at any of the UC campuses – who every year are forced to cut subscriptions to important journals they are no longer able to afford – if subscription based publishers should be viewed as allies of the University of California in need of legislative protection.

The people of the state of California have every right to immediate free access to the results of taxpayer funded research, and the University of California should be urging the legislature to strengthen the public access provisions in AB 609.

I hope you will reconsider your position on this matter. I would be happy to discuss this issue with you or any of your staff.

Michael B. Eisen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
University of California, Berkeley

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