Science community fears executive order that would make medical articles free

There’s a battle going on between US government bureaucrats and the publishers of scientific journals that’s likely to catch higher-ups in the Trump administration by surprise.

The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, receives research from professionals who want their work published so it can be shared with others in their field. But no scientific journal just takes the word of the authors. Before being published, the work must first be reviewed by other professionals.

Initially a team of doctors and Ph.D.s at the The New England Journal itself will research the results before the proposed article is sent to more than 10,000 others in the field for a so-called “peer review.”

Only after the reviews are considered will an article — if it meets strict criteria — be published. And it is estimated that 95 percent of research sent to scientific journals is rejected for publication.

As you can probably understand, all of this costs money. It’s estimated that billions are spent by the hundreds of journals in the US each year during the peer-review-to-publication process.

And that cost is recouped by selling subscriptions to professionals in the field. The priciest subscription to The New England Journal of Medicine, for instance, is $189 a year.

Many of the people who submit their research to these scientific journals have been lucky enough to have received government grants to help them pay for some of their work.

That gets us to the battle between the journals and the bureaucrats.

As it now stands, these scientific journals are required after one year to give away for free any articles that are written by people who’ve gotten any kind of federal government grant. But quietly, the government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is said to be circulating an executive order that would make these articles free immediately upon publication.

That means, of course, that the publications would have a harder time selling subscriptions and, the scientific community claims, would make it more difficult to get research vetted by qualified people.

How secretively is this change being considered? Well, the entire scientific community knows about it and is up in arms.

But the OSTP is reluctant to even discuss what’s going on here.

When I first asked, a spokesman for OSTP said, “Thank you for reaching out. However, we are not proposing any changes to the peer review process.”

When I pushed a little hard, the answer changed to: “We do not comment on internal deliberative processes that may or may not be happening. President Trump’s administration continues to be focused on scientific discovery and economic expansion.

“US federal research funding agencies are currently operating under the 2013 OSTP Memorandum Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research. The National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Open Science continues to learn about opportunities to maximize access to publicly funded research.”

OK, except that the 2013 memorandum came under the Obama administration. And the scientific community thinks that the changes being proposed in the mysterious executive order that it hasn’t even seen are contrary to the Trump administration’s pro-business attitude.

The changes, the scientific publications claim, would be anti-business because they would hurt the publishing industry. The scientists think there are holdover Obama bureaucrats who are freelancing their own policies that go contrary to what President Trump would agree with.

“The proposed regulation is a mandatory, forced requirement for public access to all scholarly articles published by professionals,” says professor Adam Mossoff of the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York.

The president, of course, has been busy on other things of late. But the scientific journals are desperately trying to get his attention.

On Dec. 18 a coalition of 135 scientific research and publishing organizations sent a letter to the Trump administration arguing that “peer-reviewed articles are not free to produce” so they should not be given away.

“The American publishing industry invests billions of dollars financing, organizing and executing the world’s leading peer-review process in order to ensure the quality, reliability and integrity of scientific record,” said Maria A. Pallante, president of the Association of American Publishers in her letter.

“If the proposed policy goes into effect, not only would it wipe out a significant section of our economy, it would also cost the federal government billions of dollars, undermine our nation’s scientific research and innovation and significantly weaken America’s trade position.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that secret proposals in Washington don’t stay secret for long. And President Trump should ask someone to look into this one, which seems to be a holdover from his predecessor’s administration.

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