Friday, January 06, 2012

Dear Judy Garber, President, American Association of Cancer Research, and Frank McCormick, President-Elect

In Lieu of Flowers: An Open Letter to the American Association of Cancer Research

This is a call for the American Association of Cancer Research to remember your purpose: helping the millions of people around the world who suffer and die from cancer, and the doctors and researchers who dedicate their lives to helping them. Please denounce the Research Works Act, which would greatly limit dissemination of literature on cancer, and the Association of American Publishers for supporting this.  

The Association of American Publishers, an association of which AACR is a member, has just lauded the Research Works Act

The Research Works Act would harm the basic mission of AACR to "prevent and cure cancer", by preventing policies requiring free dissemination of publicly funded works. I call on AACR to publicly denounce this action on the part of AAP and suspend its membership until such time as AAP reverses its position. If this action is not taken, AACR's basic mission is no longer "prevent and cure cancer through research, education, communication and collaboration", but rather  "publishing profits above all else". 

What the Research Works Act would do would be to force the U.S. government to take down PubMedCentral and the N.I.H. Public Access Policy which has been so effective in making more than 20% of the world's medical literature freely available. This would be a huge loss in access to information for researchers, doctors and patients, and is in direct contradiction to the mission of AACR, as stated on the AACR website

The misson of AACR on your website this morning does not say: defending the interests of the private sector in the publishing industry, but rather the following. The portions of your mission directly contradicted by support for the Research Works Act are bolded. 
The mission of the AACR is to prevent and cure cancer through research, education, communication, and collaboration. Through its programs and services, the AACR fosters research in cancer and related biomedical science; accelerates the dissemination of new research findings among scientists and others dedicated to the conquest of cancer; promotes science education and training; and advances the understanding of cancer etiology, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment throughout the world.
Judy Garber, as a Professor of Medicine at Harvard, please note that this action of the part of AACR is in direct contradiction to recent support by Harvard University for open access to scholarly information. Frank McCormick, remember that the University of California, like many universities around the world, is facing financial difficulties - this action could result in loss of access for the researchers, practitioners, and patients your comprehensive care centre is meant to serve.

Following is a repeat of a portion of my original "in lieu of flowers" message, sent in July of 2005 and posted to The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics. I have never received a response to this open letter. Since 2005, the growth of fully open access publishing has been absolutely phenomenal.  Both not-for-profit and commercial publishers are earning healthy surpluses or profits from fully open access publishing. There is nothing at all stopping AACR from adopting an open access approach that would sustain AACR publishing without damaging the basic mission of preventing and curing cancer.

This is a noble reason for the existence of your association. My request is that AACR review its mission, and reconsider its position on the NIH Public Access Policy. I cannot see how such a review could possibly come to any other conclusion than that your mission compels you to fully support and participate in Public Access.

Change is difficult for anyone, and I have no doubt that the small changes needed for Public Access will be a little bit uncomfortable for your association. I urge you, however, to consider how many families, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world - have asked for donations to cancer research in lieu of flowers. How many have wanted to set aside their own comforts in bereavement to speed the research, so that others would be spared the agony that they and their loved ones went through. When so many are seeing the need to speed the research and placing it above their own comfort, surely your association can, too.

Surely you realize that the best way to "accelerate the dissemination of new research findings" - to borrow a phrase from your mission statement - is for cancer researchers to share their findings as openly as possible, as soon as possible. The ideal is to post the findings openly on the web, just as soon as the quality control process (peer review) is complete - generally before publication. Imposing any delay, or any restrictions on dissemination, is contrary to your mission statement.

Your mission also says that you will "advance the understanding of cancer etiology, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment throughout the world." Outside the wealthy nations, there are many universities with no journal subscriptions at all; and, many places where lack of funds to purchase resources is a deterring factor to education, period. Participating in the NIH Public Access program clearly advances your mission. Lack of access is a factor in the U.S. too, of course; not all states are equally wealthy, and not all can afford all the journals for their university libraries.

Please share this message with your Board, and your members. If your basic mission has changed from saving lives to private sector profits, your mission statement needs updating. If your mission continues to be to accelerate cancer research, then you need to reverse your stance on the NIH's Public Access Policy, from opposition to enthusiastic support and participation.

To facilitate dissemination and encourage other associations to consider their missions when thinking about open access, this is an open letter, copied to the SPARC Open Access Forum.

I congratulate the U.S. National Institute of Health and the U.S. Senate for their support for Public Access. This is one policy area where many, myself included, see the United States as providing an example of visionary leadership, which other nations would be well advised to follow. [2012 note: since the time of this writing, my own country, Canada, has begun participating in PubMedCentral international, and we are contributing our own research to PMC through PMC-Canada].

Disclosure: my personal interests in this matter are that of an advocate for open access to scholarly communications, and (like the majority of humans on this planet), a member of a family and network of friends who have directly experienced the devastation of cancer.

best wishes,

Heather Morrison, MLIS
Doctoral Candidate, Simon Fraser University School of Communication
The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics

Open access advocates please consider this letter as public domain to you -  attribution optional.