As change continues to buffet the scientific publishing industry, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) unveiled a long-awaited but largely inconclusive report on open access. Meanwhile, publishers are continuing to develop tools for improving access to journal content, and open-access journals that provide full-text articles online for free—with authors paying publication charges up front—continue to grow in number.

The OSTP report, written in response to a requirement in the 2010 America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, makes no recommendations and provides no specific guidance to the agencies. It describes in favorable terms the open-access model that has been implemented by the National Institutes of Health. Since 2008, NIH grantees who publish articles based on their NIH-funded research are required to deposit the full text within 12 months into the agency’s PubMed Central database.

According to the OSTP report, the four-year-old NIH policy has “significantly expanded public access to the results of federally funded biomedical research and to date, there has been no demonstrable harm to the business of publishing biomedical research.” That is despite concerns by some scientific society publishers that the 12-month embargo wouldn’t be long enough and would cause them serious financial damage, particularly for journals in fields other than biomedicine. So far, NIH has been the sole federal research-funding agency that has an open-access mandate.

The OSTP report states that the scientific, technical, and medical (STM) publishing industry has continued to thrive throughout the recession, as the number and price of journals have both increased. From 2007 to 2011, the number of journals in the biological sciences and agriculture and in medicine and health grew by 15% and 19%, respectively. During that time, the average price of biology journals and health sciences journals leaped 26% and 23%, respectively. The OSTP report notes that a November 2011 forecast by Outsell Inc for the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers showed year-to-year growth of revenues for medical journals increasing from 4.5% in 2011 to 6.3% in 2014. Annual revenue growth for all STM publications is forecast by Outsell to rise more modestly, from 4.3% in 2011 to 5.3% in 2014.

The public comments that the OSTP received in response to its two requests for information on open access, and the input from a 2010 congressionally convened roundtable on scholarly publishing, showed strong support for greater public access to the scientific literature. But the comments also showed a broad recognition of “the essential role that publishers and the peer review system play in advancing the scientific enterprise.” The comments received from the most recent request for information, which closed in January of this year, showed an overwhelming degree of support for federal action to increase public access to journal articles.

Just days prior to release of the OSTP report, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology took up the public-access issue. Among the witnesses testifying was American Institute of Physics (AIP) executive director H. Frederick Dylla. The institute, which publishes PHYSICS TODAY, has been working with NSF and the Department of Energy to broaden access to journal articles, link grantees’ research reports to publications, mine data across agency and publisher databases, and develop tools and methodologies for identifying publicly funded work.

A number of publishers, including AIP, recently instituted FundRef, a uniform system for identifying the funding agencies that are associated with journal articles. Such data are now provided inconsistently, and FundRef is expected to make it easier for agencies to demonstrate the content that results from their grants. FundRef also will provide a new tool for the research community and the public to access reports and publications.

FundRef and the 12-year-old CrossRef, a system that lets researchers find and link to relevant articles published in other journals, are supported by leading nonprofit and commercial journal publishers. Those tools are helpful, but they generally do not provide access to the full text of the article. In AIP’s case, an individual can pay $1.99 to access the full text of an article. That option has been used about 3700 times since it was instituted two years ago, a relative handful of times compared with the 1.2 million articles downloaded each month by subscribers to AIP journals, Dylla says.

At the subcommittee hearing, Dylla told lawmakers, “AIP has been trying to build awareness among all affected parties that while open access may mean freely available, the costs to assure the quality, rigor, discovery, and production value of scientific publishing are not zero. . . . The open-access model is growing at a reasonable rate for fields where such a model is appropriate,” such as well-funded and fast-moving disciplines. But delayed-release models aren’t viable for fields such as mathematics, theoretical physics, and social science, in which articles have citation lifetimes of years, he said.

Cash-strapped libraries at small nonresearch colleges—the source of 40% of AIP’s journal subscriptions—may well drop some of their subscriptions if an embargo is as short as six months, the duration proposed in a bill known as the Federal Research Public Access Act. If FRPAA, which has been introduced three times since 2006, became law, “we would find it very disruptive to our entire business model,” Dylla testified, noting that AIP derives more than 90% of its revenue from journal subscriptions. Worldwide, 90% of the world’s 25 000 scientific journals remain subscription based, he noted.

Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY) warned that legislation such as FRPAA “may end by creating more problems than we solve” and result in the loss of established journals and the weakening of professional scientific societies. Subcommittee chair Paul Broun (R-GA) cautioned that “what works or does not work for NIH and biomedical research may not be appropriate for other agencies and scientific fields.” Crispin Taylor, executive director of the American Society of Plant Biologists, said the government should “adopt sensible, flexible, and cautious approaches to drafting and revising public-access policies or regulations,” in consultation with all concerned parties.

T. Scott Plutchak, director of the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said a uniform embargo period of six months “would be longer than necessary in some disciplines and too short to be practical in others.” He warned that passage of FRPAA-type legislation will, “paradoxically, make the goal of a truly robust open-access infrastructure for scientific communication even more difficult to achieve.” But Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), an FRPAA sponsor, asserted that the subscription model is “dead, and it’s only a question of how long it will be kept on life support.”

Elliot Maxwell, project director for the digital connections council of the Committee for Economic Development, argued that the NIH mandate should be applied across the government. If that was found to be harmful to the nonprofit publishers, adjustments could be made, he noted.

Stuart Shieber, director of the office for scholarly communication at Harvard University, said other funding agencies should adopt the NIH model. Harvard, he said, pays $9 million annually for subscriptions to “tens of thousands” of journals. As subscription prices continue to rise at almost 7% annually, he said, more libraries are canceling them, which drives further price hikes to recoup revenue—a spiral that ends in higher and higher prices paid by fewer and fewer libraries. “The market is structured to provide institutions a Hobson’s choice between unsustainable expenditures or reduced access,” Shieber lamented.

Meanwhile, NSF and the Max Planck Society, working with the physics community, are spearheading a possible plan that could move journals from a subscription-based to an author-pays model supplemented with money institutions would save from lowering their subscription costs. Edward Seidel, NSF’s assistant director for mathematics and physical sciences, cautions the plan, still at the conceptual stage, assumes that all funding agencies agree to coordinate policies to include in their grant awards the funding for author publication charges. It also assumes establishment at universities of a “central fund” from savings on subscriptions. “It’s almost identical to what we do in the health care industry. You’re sort of covered by your central insurance, but you have a copay,” he says.

A number of physics journal publishers, including AIP, the American Physical Society, and IOP Publishing, have been involved in the discussions, as have the European Commission, the Department of Energy, and others. “If we came up with a model that we all agreed was reasonable and would work, we might go to the next step and do a pilot program to see if we could implement this,” says Seidel. A third meeting on the proposal is scheduled for June.