Green mandates and gold choices

My doctoral degree arrived by mail this past week in my office at the Centre for Research Communications, where I have been working for two months now as an Open Access Adviser for the Repositories Support Project (RSP).  Thinking back of the whole PhD process I believe that one word describes every part of it well, the adverb “amazingly”! When you are a PhD student, first, you are amazingly poor; second, amazingly enough, you can survive without sleeping; and, third, conducting research and writing a dissertation about open access is amazingly interesting.

I started my PhD in September 2007 at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts, a prestigious library school with a long history. My plan was to study the open-access movement with Associate Professor Robin Peek, an open-access advocate and one of the first signatories of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI).

The title of my dissertation is, “The Influence of the National Institutes of Health Public-Access Policy on the Publishing Habits of Principal Investigators“. The mandatory National Institutes of Health (NIH) public-access policy requires that the NIH-funded principal investigators (PIs) submit to PubMed Central (PMC) immediately upon publication the peer-reviewed copy of their article, which will then become available for public access through PMC no later than after a twelve-month embargo period. The policy has been effective since April 7th, 2008 (Division G, Title II, Section 218 of PL 110-161 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008).

The purpose of this dissertation was to investigate the effect of the NIH public-access policy on the NIH-funded principal investigators’ publishing decisions.

Simmons College, Boston, MA, USA

Four research questions were examined:

1. Which factors motivate the NIH-funded PIs to publish in the PLoS open-access journals?

2. How do NIH-funded PIs perceive the NIH public-access policy?

3. How does the NIH public-access policy influence the PIs’ publishing behavior?

4. How does the NIH public-access policy influence the PIs’ decision to publish in open-access journals?

To answer these questions, during the period March-May 2011, forty-two PIs were interviewed using SkypeTM software, and a semi-structured open-ended interview protocol was followed. The participants were divided into two groups: the pre-mandate PIs, who had published in one of the seven PLoS journals during the period 2005-2007 and the post-mandate PIs, who had published in the PLoS journals during the period 2008-2009.

The results can be summarized into the following categories:

PLoS Publication Drive: There are four quality criteria that motivate the participants to publish in one of the seven PLoS journals: (a) impact factor, (b) publication speed, (c) peer-review and (d) articles’ citation advantage.

Copyrights: The participants do not actively manage their copyrights for four reasons. They (a) have limited knowledge on the topic, (b) publish in toll-access journals that comply with the policy, (c) publish in open-access journals with limited copyright restrictions (libre open access), or (d) ignore the journal publishers’ copyright restrictions and proceed with the manuscripts’ submission to PubMed Central.

Publication fees: The PIs pay the publication fees using the NIH-funding. Providing that every year all articles will be published in open-access journals, the NIH-funding does not cover adequately the whole amount of the publication fees.

Comprehending the policy: Three groups were formulated: (a) NIH public-access policy is easy to understand and comply with (n=13, 31%), (b) PIs have assistants who are responsible for the submission and could not express an opinion (n=14, 33%), and (c) NIH public-access policy is difficult to understand and comply with (n=15, 36%). The complicated parts of the policy are (a) the policy’s wording, (b) journals’ licensing agreements, and (c) manuscript submission.

Seeking help: The participants do not ask for help mainly due to lack of time. They give their own interpretation of the policy’s wording and perform all the steps hoping that they managed the submission process correctly. At an institutional level help was provided through workshops, organized mainly by the grants department and occasionally in cooperation with the library.

Policy & open-access awareness:

  • Non-increased OA awareness for OA Advocates (N=42, n=15, 36%)
  • Non-increased OA awareness for Non-OA Advocates (N=42, n=20, 48%)
  • Increased OA awareness for Non-OA Advocates (N=42, n=7, 16%)

Policy & publishing habits:

  • The policy did not cause a change in publishing habits (N=42, n=31, 74%)
  • The policy caused a change in publishing habits (N=42, n=11, 26%)

To sum, the NIH public-access policy caused only a limited change in the PIs’ open-access awareness and their publishing habits. The OA Advocates support immediate access to information and have been providing their manuscripts in open-access formats before the implementation of the policy.  The non-OA Advocates publish their articles based on quality and prestige criteria and the journals they use to publish comply with the policy, so there is no need for change.

The PIs have chosen to publish with one of the PLoS journals because of their high-impact factor, publication speed, fair peer-review system and the articles’ open accessibility.

Although the participants validate the proposition that publicly funded research should be distributed free of cost, some dislike the extra effort of submitting the manuscripts to PubMed Central. The submission process may be considered to be an administrative burden, but the PIs who have administrators assisting them with the policy’s steps have a more positive attitude towards the policy.

The dissertation committee members were: Chair; Robin Peek, Professor (Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College), Peter Suber, Faculty Fellow (Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University) and Lisa Hussey, Professor (Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College).

The dissertation full-text is available here.

All in all, what can we conclude; should funding agencies and institutions mandate immediate deposits to repositories? In an environment where bills such as the Research Works Act (RWA) are being introduced to the Senate, are organized counteractions from funding agencies and institutions that fund the research essential to ensure the sustainability of the free-of-cost access to their results? And probably you would ask; should policies be enforced, even though they are considered by some to be an administrative burden?  It is true that some human beings find it difficult to change their habits, and, similarly, some authors find it difficult to change their publishing habits. In the BOAI 10, Peter Suber mentioned how arduous it is to inform people about open access and that one of the future strategies should be “the coordinated effort to educate the stakeholders about these [open access] issues, because if we succeed in that the others all take care of themselves” (1:07 minute). So the answer is “yes” to all!

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