The US White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently issued a Request for Information on their existing policy requiring some federally-funded work to be submitted to Pubmed Central, where it’s freely accessible to the public. We were pleased to have the opportunity to respond and a summary of our response is below. Before getting into that, however, I’d like to take a little detour and talk a little about our mission and how that relates to the scholarly endeavor. Our mission at Mendeley is to help researchers organize research, collaborate easily with colleagues, and discover new research.
We believe in the value of peer-review and we think publishers add value to the process of scholarly communication and they should be able to make a profit. We also think that since the internet was invented initially for academics to share resources, there has been far too little innovation in the way scholarly results are communicated. Innovation has been particularly slow coming to the biomedical and life sciences field. So it warmed my heart when the National Institutes of Health, the major biomedical funder in the US (by a longshot) sent down a mandate that all publications resulting from work they funded must be deposited in Pubmed Central. This forward-looking policy meant that the fruits of federally funded research (taxpayer funded research) would finally be available to the public. Now patients could read the latest research about their condition, the general public could educate themselves with the real data on climate change, and numerous small biotech firms and other small businesses could access information needed to compete and grow in our global economy. This policy helped even scientists at elite first world institutions, such as Harvard, where the ever-growing cost of subscriptions forced their libraries to cancel subscriptions. This policy added significantly to the US economy, without hurting the ability of publishers to make a profit.
Another positive sign that things were slowly starting to improve in the life sciences was when the Public Library of Science started the journal PLoS ONE, which provided immediate, no-embargo access to every article, together with a innovative system that tracks the number of downloads and views of the articles. Even better, the journal has done fantastically well by traditional measures. It’s done so well that many other publishers have even started to copy their model. It’s understandable that, in the face of this nascent change, there are some who feel threatened by these changes. Threatened enough to lobby former champions of openness to sponsor protective legislation that would roll back the NIH mandate and prevent any other federal agency from taking its lead. (Although not threatened enough to mention it in their shareholder’s meeting, it should be said.)
Mendeley opposes the Research Works Act because we want to see more innovation in how scientists communicate and share. We see a pivotal role for ourselves in this, but, as researchers, we also see the desperate need for these changes. Perhaps Tim O’Reilly said it best:
Please don’t write laws that protect 19th century industries against 21st-century disruption!
At Mendeley we feel we have a big part to play in helping researchers manage information, and it’s simply easier when scientists don’t have to deal with a patchwork of policies regarding what they can share and how. We also feel we have a responsibility to take a leadership role and show how innovation can help the entire scholarly communication ecosystem, including publishers, researchers, and all the myriad participants in the process of getting an idea from the mind of one scholar to the mind of another. That’s why we sparked innovation with the Binary Battle, that’s why we provide article-level metrics on all documents in our catalog under a CC-BY license, that’s why we have developed Mendeley Suggest, and that’s why we contributed our comments to the OSTP RFI. We will also be participating in the Stop Online Piracy Act internet blackout on January 18th.
One more future innovation lies ahead, and that’s how peer review works. Traditionally, peer review works like this. A researcher sends a manuscript to a journal. The journal solicits experts in the field to read and review the manuscript, providing their comments back to the author and to the editor of the journal, often along with their recommendations on whether the paper should be published and if any modifications are needed. However, as the growing list of retractions indicates, this system is showing its age and does not scale gracefully under growing numbers of publications. We need a better system. We don’t know what that system will look like, but we think that the discovery mechanisms of the social web provide an indication of what a scalable system would look like, so we invite all authors to not only upload the final, peer-reviewed copies of publications for which they maintained rights to their Mendeley profile, but also to upload the pre-publication versions as well and let’s start the experiment on whether post-publication peer review really works as a means to discovering and providing access to research. I would also encourage all researchers at an academic institution with an institutional repository to make use of it. This year, we’ll begin synchronizing your profile with your local institutional repository, so keep your eyes out for developments here.
A summary of our response to the White House RFI is as follows:
To promote innovation, economic growth, keep America competitive, and provide for the long-term stewardship of the scientific record, we suggest the NIH policy be extended to cover all federal grant funding institutions and amended as follows:
- Include explicit protection for re-use with a license such as the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY)
- Allow no embargo period
- Mandate deposit of the final, peer-reviewed version in either an institutional or centralized repository
- Require inclusion of data other researchers need to reproduce the work
- Provide incentives for interoperability of repositories via shared metadata schemas