HHMI responds to JCB on Open Access

Do you remember that letter in which the editors of The Journal of Cell Biology criticized Howard Hughes Medical Institute for capitulating to Elsevier? Just to remind you, HHMI had been pressuring Elsevier, publisher of Cell and other scientific journals, to allow the free distribution of published material, 6 months after the date of publication. HHMI & Elsevier reach a compromised (described bellow) and JCB criticized HHMI for giving in to Elsevier.

Now HHMI has officially responded, and that letter appears in the most recent edition of JCB. You'll find that and JCB's reply below the fold.

A reply from HHMI

Tom Cech, Jack Dixon, Avice Meehan, Josie Briggs, and Carl Rhodes
T. Cech, J. Dixon, A. Meehan, J. Briggs, and C. Rhodes are at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, MD 20815

Correspondence to Avice Meehan: meehana@hhmi.org

To: The Editors of The Journal of Cell Biology:

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) recently announced a policy on Public Access to Publications for its investigators and Janelia Farm Research Campus scientists (http://www.hhmi.org/about/research/policies.html). This policy requires our scientists to publish in only those journals that make original research articles and supplemental materials freely accessible through a public database within six months of publication.

The policy seeks to balance the goal of public access and the equally important value of scholarly freedom--the goal of our scientists to allow their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to publish their work in the journal of their choice. To bring more journals into compliance with our policy, we have concluded agreements with Elsevier and Cell Press, as well as other publishers, including the American Society of Hematology. Such conversations will continue with both for-profit and non-profit publishers.

Rossner and Mellman (1) have criticized HHMI for not using its influence to coerce Elsevier into making their content public after a short delay without compensation. It should be noted that the $1,000 we are paying for each Cell Press article and $1,500 for other Elsevier publications is not profit to the publisher, but a reimbursement for their lost revenue in providing accelerated free access and their time and effort in uploading HHMI manuscripts to PubMed Central. Furthermore, HHMI already makes payments at a similar level to a wide array of non-profit and for-profit publishers for immediate or accelerated access to publications, as does the Wellcome Trust.

Scholarly publishing is in flux, not simply in the biological sciences. Virtually all publishers, ranging from scientific societies and non-profit organizations to major corporate entities, are reconsidering their policies and business models. Now that the lid to the open- access publication box has been opened, there's no closing it again. We applaud The Rockefeller University Press and other non-profit publishers for taking an early lead in providing rapid free access to the scientific literature.


1-Rossner, M., and I. Mellman. 2007. How the rich get richer. J. Cell Biol. 177:951.

And here is how JCB responded:

Response from Mike Rossner (Executive Director, The Rockefeller University Press) and Ira Mellman (Editor in Chief, The Journal of Cell Biology):

It seems clear from the HHMI response that they missed the point of our Editorial. They note that they are providing public access to HHMI-funded research with their outlay of cash to publishers (both commercial and non-commercial). This fact was not in dispute.

They do not, however, address the effect of their actions on the public access movement--that is, the effort to get publishers (especially commercial publishers, who have refused to release the bulk of their content to the public) to provide public access to their holdings after a short delay. If the Rockefeller University Press does not need reimbursement to provide free access after 6 months, neither should other publishers. Elsevier already makes vast sums of money publishing publicly funded research, and they should feel an obligation to give something back to the public. Paying publishers to provide spotty access to just a few of the papers they publish (e.g., those authored by HHMI investigators) does not address the issue of public access to all of the scientific literature. HHMI had an opportunity to exert some pressure on publishers to achieve that goal, and they chose not to do so. Although they claim they were trying to find a balance between public access and "scholarly freedom," they did not succeed. Instead, the public access movement has suffered because HHMI gave in to the selfish desire of some of their investigators to continue publishing in Cell. This serves neither the public, nor science.

More like this

"Instead, the public access movement has suffered because HHMI gave in to the selfish desire of some of their investigators to continue publishing in Cell."

I think "selfish desire" is a little harsh. In my opinion, "instinct for self-preservation and for the career success of their trainees" would have been more accurate.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

Yeah, it's kinda harsh. And I see both sides (or all three sides) - Elsevier is in the publishing business for the money and it takes a lot to produce a journal like Cell. And HHMI were trying to acknowledge that, but they also missed the point of the JCB commentary.

Here's a great idea! HHMI has so much money, why don't they pay Elsevier enough money for *all* Cell papers to go open access after 6 months, not just those from HHMI labs.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

Maybe JCB should emphasize the economic terms of their argument, since that's the tack that Elsevier and HHMI seem to be following on their side. Talking about the social and moral obligations to "give back to the public" seems to be following on deaf ears and just serves to villainize and push Elsevier, HHMI, and their scientists away.

A more empathetic way of phrasing the argument might be to think of the Elsevier contract in tariff terms; that is, the HHMI has contracted with Elsevier to raise the price of six-month's publication time of the articles (from free to $1000). All the prices of the entire market move up when tariffs occur; all publishers will start demanding similar compensation for publishing articles for free after six months, because they're given an incentive by HHMI's deal. And this will only work for those journals with the financial heft to make those demands (i.e. Nature, Science, etc.), and smaller independent journals will lose out on the deal.