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Michael Smallegan: Access denied

BY MICHAEL SMALLEGAN

Published April 30, 2012

I’ve researched and written too many papers during my time here, yet have only been to the library once to actually get my hands on some physical reference material. Once. This isn’t because the library system isn’t useful; in fact, it's the opposite. The University of Michigan library system is doing everything right. Only once was a resource, in all those Mirlyn searches, not available electronically. The University’s library system is leading the way in the digital revolution, yet all of this forward momentum is threatened ... and nobody is talking about it.

Over the past few months, the latest instance of the public access battle played out in Congress, and hardly anyone around campus even noticed. The showdown unraveled the same as it did in 2008, and again in 2009, ending in a stalemate. It would be a shame though, for us to only hear about this drama after the chips fall since, as you will see, we as University students have some skin in the game.

Late last year, U.S. Representatives Darrell Issa (R­–Calif.) and Carolyn Maloney (D–N.Y.) introduced the Research Works Act (RWA) to Congress. It’s a short, easily understood bill, which in plain language sounds the death knell for public access to federally funded research. If passed, it would reverse the National Institute of Health’s Public Access Policy, putting the 21 million freely available citations in the PubMed library into a fee-to-see system­.

Supporters of the bill argue the obvious. They say that open access to research infringes on the rights of publishers and will put them out of business. Academic publishing is big business indeed and it would hurt to have that sector disappear. But let’s be clear, though the move to digital has put the publishing industry into a state of flux, the industry is not in danger. The four top scientific publishers—Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa—all boast profit margins of over 30 percent. In the first quarter of 2001, Wiley, appallingly, made 42 percent profits as a percentage of revenue. The average profit margins for general publishing companies on the Fortune 500 list is 8.8 percent.

What is in danger is the rate at which scientific discovery proceeds and the availability of resources to both researchers and students here on campus. Those profits break down to about $4,000 per article. Let’s indulge in a very general estimate: a significant subset of the 21 million citations in PubMed are full-text articles, and to those we would be adding about $4,000 each, which entails adding a lot of extra cost to the process.

The typical argument here is that taxpayers have already had to pay for this research because it is funded by federal money. Eliminating public access would mean making citizens pay again for the same resources. It’s not the most convincing argument to me, but here’s one that hits home: Public university libraries would need to come up with a way to pay for all this material at a time when governmental financial support is rapidly eroding.

It has taken a hit by the $40 million reduction in state funding from fiscal year 2011. We need to listen for round four of this debate and speak for our interests. Round three has simmered down, but it is not entirely over yet.

In February of this past year, lawmakers re-introduced for the third time a dueling bill, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA). The bill, if passed, would mandate open access for research funded by any federal agency with research expenditures over $100 million. These terms encompass 11 federal agencies and would represent a huge step forward for public access of science findings.

Both the RWA and FRPAA have been largely abandoned, and in an election year they are unlikely to be revisited. We cannot wait until the system is broken to pay attention.

The next time a Mirlyn search brings you to an "Available Online" link, think of how easy it is to access that content. Then think of how legislation that affects this system could’ve passed into law without you even knowing about it.

Tell someone, tell your congressman, but, most of all, listen up for round four. We can’t let the public access debate slide by again unnoticed.

Michael Smallegan can be reached at smallmic@umich.edu


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