|31 December, 2019

Donald Trump may be surprise science benefactor

The surprising proposal from the White House, whose occupant is generally not regarded as a friend of science, could help cut this Gordian Knot

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media after participating in a video teleconference with members of the U.S. military at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., December 24, 2019.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media after participating in a video teleconference with members of the U.S. military at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., December 24, 2019.

REUTERS/Leah Millis

NEW YORK  - Publish or perish is academia’s motto, but prestigious journals collect astonishing profit along the way.

Research is often paid for by governments. Federal agencies provided more than 40% of all funding for basic science in the United States in 2015. Professors will write and help vet it for free. Journals then put the results behind paywalls. Requiring federally funded research to be immediately free – as President Donald Trump is weighing, according to E&E News – would be a win for the public, if not for toll keepers like $48 billion RELX or $14 billion Informa.

Few beside publishers are happy with the current system. Authors don’t like having their papers behind paywalls, limiting the number of readers and potential influence. University libraries are unhappy about hefty fees – the University of California said earlier this year in a contract dispute it pays $11 million a year in subscription fees to Elsevier, the academic publishing arm of RELX. That leaves less money for other needs. And the public wonders why they can’t see the results their taxes paid for.

The internet offers a chance to change the system because it’s easy and cheap to reach niche audiences. But inertia, incentives and the difficulty of collective action have slowed change. Prestige is the coin of the realm of academia. Placing a paper in a top-tier journal like Nature remains the gold standard. Researchers and universities put their academic careers or reputation at risk by opting out.

The surprising proposal from the White House, whose occupant is generally not regarded as a friend of science, could help cut this Gordian Knot. It may not happen, and details must be ironed out, but publishers are worried. A trade association said in a letter the proposal puts the industry and American science at risk. That is an overstatement, though there are costs. Many professional associations help fund themselves, for example, via journals.

Publishing firms would also take a hit if they sell fewer subscriptions, even though most have other geographies and operations that won’t be affected. Academic publishing accounts for some 20% of profit at RELX, broker Liberum estimated earlier this year. Yet it trades at 19 times forecast profit, more than a 50% premium to peers. While RELX and its ilk will surely fight to keep tolls high, science – and society – would benefit from faster and freer dissemination.

CONTEXT NEWS

- The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is weighing an executive order that would require the results of federally funded research be immediately available to the public for free according to an article in E&E News on Dec. 17. Currently, such research is available within a year of publication.

- In response, the Association of American Publishers sent a letter to the White House signed by a coalition of more than 135 scientific research and publishing organizations opposing the move. They said it would “undermine American science, intellectual property and global competitiveness.” Several petitions by academics, and SPARC, a coalition of more than 200 academic and research libraries, wrote in support of the initiative to publish results openly and immediately.

(Editing by Rob Cox and Amanda Gomez) ((robert.cyran@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: robert.cyran.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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