OA, RNA and Wikipedia

The recent announcement made on NatureNews that the journal RNA Biology will require authors writing for one of its sections to also post a page describing the work in Wikipedia set me wondering, and debating with a colleague, about the motivation here.  Bloggers at the Fischbowl and O’Reilly Radar see this as a big step for open access, and I am initially inclined to agree.  But the cynic in me has some questions.  Why Wikipedia? for example.  Couldn’t openness be achieved just as effectively by posting OA abstracts on the journal website, as many other publications do?  The answer, of course, is no, once one recognizes that the purpose is not openness for its own sake, but openness as a driver of commercial sales.  Wikipedia is a first stop for many seeking information on the Internet, and it is a top hit on Google for many searches.  If a large number of Wikipedia pages direct seekers of biological information to RNA Biology, presumably subscriptions and individual article sales will increase.

In these post-Goggle Books settlement days, we should not be surprised to see that limited open access is beginning to be seen as a technique to push more eyeballs onto pay-per-use sites.  And as with the Google settlement agreement, I find myself very conflicted in my reaction to this trend.

It is worth noting that RNA Biology, which is published by Landes Bioscience, is not an unmixed supporter of open access.  Based on their copyright policies, the SHERPA RoMEO database lists this as a “white” journal, meaning archiving is not formally supported.  Like all of RoMEO’s color categories, however, this does not adequately convey the complexity of the situation.  RNA Biology does make its entire contents available in open access one year after publication, and it offers an “author pays” immediate OA option for a relatively low price — $750, reduced to $500 if the author’s institution subscribes to the journal (at institutional rates that are 9x higher than individual subscriptions).  Finally, RNA Biology acknowledges, in its copyright transfer agreement, that authors retain the right to deposit their manuscripts in PubMed Central, as required by the NIH’s Public Access Policy.

All of this sounds good, but it is in that same copyright transfer agreement that one finds the policies that cause SHERPA to give this journal its lowest OA rating.  The journal requires a complete transfer of copyright from its authors, and essentially gives back only two, very limited rights.  Authors are allowed to use their article in subsequent publications, such as a dissertation or monograph, and are allowed to make photocopies of the article (not digital copies) to distribute in classes they teach (even though this could well be a fair use anyway).  Notably, there is no provision for self-archiving either pre-prints or post-prints (which is why they are a RoMEO white journal), and it seems that only Landes Bioscience, not the author(s), are entitled to create derivative works from the article.  That provision (or lack of provision) is, to me, the most worrisome for scholarly authors, who seldom drop a topic “cold turkey” after publishing one article.

From all this I think there is an ambiguous message to be gleaned.  On the one hand, it is a good sign that publishers are beginning to see open access as a supporter of scholarly publishing rather than a competitor to it.  The recent experiment by university presses in publishing traditional books alongside on-line OA versions — James Boyle’s “The Public Domain” is an example — will show, I believe, that OA can increase awareness of a book or a journal and thus support sales of traditional publications.  But on the other hand, if OA is structured entirely with this purpose in mind it can prove to be a detriment rather than a support to the interests of scholarship and scholarly authors.  The CTA that authors for RNA Biology must sign suggests that this is the case here, and the Wikipedia mandate seems unlikely to ultimately benefit the academy as a whole, although I hope to be proved wrong in that prediction.  In any case, I think a close examination of all of the conditions around publication in this journal supports the continuing need for authors to negotiate and retain a right to self-archive, since that alone is a sure guarantee that OA will genuinely serve the interests of the author.