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Sci-Tech Not-For-Profit Publishers Commit to Limited Open Access
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Posted On March 22, 2004
Forty-eight of the nation's and the world's top medical and scientific societies and not-for-profit scholarly publishers have signed the "Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science" (http://www.dcprinciples.org), a statement proclaiming their commitment to providing free access and wide dissemination of published research findings. The announcement declared that the DC Principles represent a "needed ‘middle ground' in the increasingly heated debate between those who advocate immediate unfettered online access to medical and scientific research findings and advocates of the current journal publishing system." The press release announcing the statement indicated that the societies signing the DC Principles represent over 600,000 scientist and clinician members and publish over 380 journals. A closer look revealed that the journal titles held by publisher signatories totaled 115 and all signatories were currently hosted on HighWire Press, a Web-based hosting service for academic publishers from Stanford University (http://highwire.stanford.edu).

Drafted over the past year in discussions initiated at meetings of HighWire Press publishers, the DC Principles are a response to charges that current publisher practices impede access to published scientific research. According to Lenne Miller, senior director of publications at the Endocrine Society and active member of the DC Principles organization, the initiative began as an attempt to counter the Public Library of Science's open access advocacy, which had "tarred scholarly society publishers with the same brush as commercial publishers."

The practices to which the 48 signatory societies have committed in the Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science include:

  • maintaining and enhancing the independence, rigor, trust, and visibility that have helped to establish scholarly journals as reliable filters of information
  • support of several forms of free access, including the availability of:

    • selected important articles from scientific or medical journals free from the time of publication
    • free access to journal content for scientists working in many low-income nations
    • the full text of journals made freely available worldwide either immediately or within months of publication, "depending on each publisher's business and publishing requirements"
    • content available for indexing by major search engines so readers worldwide can easily locate information
  • continued development of long-term preservation solutions for online journals to ensure the ongoing availability of the scientific literature
  • dedication to work with authors, peer-reviewers, and editors for the development of robust online and electronic tools to improve efficiency
  • the reinvestment of revenue from journals in direct support of science worldwide, including scholarships, scientific meetings, grants, educational outreach, advocacy for research funding, the free dissemination of information to the public, and improvements in scientific publishing

The organizations also support alternative funding to publication fees paid solely by researchers and/or their funding institutions. The DC Principles also support the co-existence of many different publishing models in a free society, provided all strive to meet high standards for scholarly publishing.

Scholarly society publishers publish some of the most important and prestigious scientific and medical journals in the world. Karin Wittenborg, university librarian at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville campus, who spoke at the press briefing announcing the DC Principles, said that scholarly society publishers have a history of "reasonable prices and of being early adopters of technology." She clarified that she measures the reasonableness of prices by cost per usage, rather than just subscription prices, feeling that the heavy usage of scholarly society journals adds a high impact factor.

Business models for scholarly society publishers vary, deriving income from multiple funding sources. Policies for handling digital journal holdings can vary greatly. John Sack of HighWire Press pointed to the 21 titles carried on its service with totally free public access, though over half the titles carried have no free material at all. Some publishers mix the free and subscription-required content. For example, the American Physiological Society offers a selection of recent articles free, then a free archive for material from 1995 to the previous year, but charges individual and institutional subscription fees for pre-1995 digital archives. HighWire Press was not a signatory to the DC Principles.

The 48 signatories to the Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science are medical and life science scholarly societies, along with a few university or not-for-profit publishers. For a copy of the DC Principles, click to http://www.dcprinciples.org/statement.htm; for a list of signatories with contact information and journal titles, click to http://www.dcprinciples.org/signatorieslist.htm.

Confusion over the 380 journals claimed by the press release stems from the participation of the Society of National Association Publications (http://www.snaponline.org) and its 265 titles. SNAP is a professional society serving associations with publishing operations and does not control individual member policies. However, SNAP does endorse and recommend the DC Principles to its scholarly society members. The 265 title count, according to Peter Banks of SNAP, constitutes its full membership, not just the scholarly society members. He hoped that corrections to the DC Principles Web site would clarify the matter.

Librarian associations responded quickly to the statement, praising the signatories. The Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL), American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), American Library Association (ALA), Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Medical Library Association (MLA), Open Society Institute (OSI), Public Knowledge, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), and SPARC Europe issued a joint statement. It applauded the publishers signing the DC Principles "for their commitment to free access to peer-reviewed research literature where they conclude it is feasible." (The press release and statement are available at: http://www.arl.org/sparc/.)

However, the librarian organizations also stated that:

Open access is our goal for scientific and scholarly communication because it facilitates the open discussion needed to accelerate research, share knowledge, and enlarge human understanding. The goal is so desirable—for science itself and for researchers, universities, libraries, journals, publishers, learned societies, foundations, governments, and citizens—that any problems we encounter in pursuing it are worth solving. Our organizations stand ready to work toward solutions in cooperation with the signatories of the DC Principles.

Miller hopes that more scholarly societies, including those outside the medical and life sciences, will join the DC Principles. Although the organization has no specific plan for expansion, Miller said many of the signatories will publicize the initiative through their own publicity channels, including posting to Web sites. Miller also expected that current signatories may re-examine current policies in regard to the amount and type of content they make available for free.


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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