Yes, HR 801 is about Open-Access Journals

Stevan Harnad has questioned some of the claims in my last post. I hate to say this, as a part-time semanticist, but Harnad’s criticisms of the above post are mostly semantics. He did more accurately quote the letter of the NIH and Harvard policies (and I apologize for my sloppy wording), but I believe my formulation got much closer to the intent and impact of these policies.

Harnad points out that the NIH and Harvard policies do not mandate publishing in open-access journals; they simply mandate making publications open-access after a certain period of time. As far as I can tell, pretty much everybody — including Conyers, the bill’s sponsor, and probably Harnad — understands that these policies hurt subscription-based journals. After all, it is very hard to sell access to something which is free.

It might not have been clear from his comment, but Harnad supports free access to peer-reviewed research. His focus is not on open-access journals, however, so he has some stake in pointing out that there are other open-access models. I appreciate this point.

Still, I think the key issue is that these papers still need to go through peer-review and publication, something Harnad goes to pains to point out elsewhere. Currently, we have two models: subscription-based journals, which pass on the costs of review and publication to the reader, and open-access journals, which pass on the costs to the author or a private foundation. If these policies make the subscription-based journals less profitable, then the open-access journals presumably become more competitive.

Currently, open-access journals have several things working against them. For one thing, they (typically) cost the authors money. I have more than once wanted to submit a paper to the Journal of Vision, but I can’t accord the $85/page publication costs. Also, the open-access journals are newer and less prestigious, and in academics, prestige of the journal can count for a great deal. If the open-access policies force subscription-based publishers to raise their own publication fees or go out of business, this presumably should help open-access journals .

I used “presumably” a few times, and if there are good reasons to believe that policies like those of NIH and Harvard harm open-access journals and subscription journals alike, then I’d like to know about them.


One minor point about the distinction between for-profit and non-profit journals: Subscription-based journals, whether for-profit or non-profit, sell subscriptions and thus are paid for their role in publication. Thus, I’m not really sure what Harnad was getting at in pointing out that some non-profit journals also support Conyers’ bill, which is intended to support the subscription model.


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