SPARC Innovator: Mike Rossner, Executive Director, Rockefeller University Press, New York

Mike Rossner

Mike Rossner is an anomaly, of sorts, in the scientific publishing world. He is a force from within the establishment pushing for policies to make information more widely accessible and verifiable.

“I don’t see myself as going against the grain, I see myself as doing what’s right,”

says the 44-year-old executive director of the Rockefeller University Press (RUP), a nonprofit publisher in New York City whose journals are edited by active scientists.

What’s right and logical, to Rossner, is making research funded with taxpayer money available to those who paid for it. He’s also committed to ensuring the integrity of scientific data before it is published. Rossner, who has been at the helm of RUP since 2006 and on staff since 1997, is a proponent of public access. He supports releasing journal articles and research data to the public after a short embargo so the community can benefit, and the Press can recoup its costs.

RUP was founded in 1905 and publishes the Journal of Cell Biology (JCB), the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM), and the Journal of General Physiology (JGP). Rossner’s track record is proof that traditional, subscription-based publishers can provide effective public access and stay in business.

“Mike is an innovator because he has been on the leading edge in adopting incredibly forward-thinking policies,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC. “He’s changing the nature of publishing and, along with it, the reality of who can access and read journals, while keeping a strong focus on maintaining high quality standards.”

While some publishers have been reluctant to release archival content, Rossner has worked to find a balance between the public good and the reality of business. He has championed free public access by releasing the journal content published by RUP from access controls after a six-month delay. He has written editorials in support of the NIH Public Access Policy and spoken out against efforts to repeal it in Congress. He has lashed out against price gouging by megapublishers, recently challenging the practice of bundling subscriptions. (See below for links).

Rossner’s positions often differ from those of the Association of American Publishers and the Association of American University Presses, yet he remains a member of both. “I feel it’s valuable to have a voice from within the establishment,” he says. “I have found those organizations to be receptive to dissenting voices.”

Breaking new ground in licensing content

In May 2008, under Rossner’s leadership, RUP took another step to promote the free distribution of their content by adopting a new copyright policy. Part of that policy expanded authors’ rights. “We simply felt it was necessary to acknowledge who did the work and thus who owns the work, while trying not to diminish the value we add as publishers, through peer review, copy editing, and layout,” he says.

Under the policy, the authors grant RUP a license to publish their articles, but authors retain copyright and can do whatever they want with the work. Third party use is subject to a custom license that is similar to a Creative Commons license, except that it prohibits creation of a complete “mirror site” within the first six months after publication. After six months, that mirroring limitation is dropped, and the license changes to a standard Creative Commons license. The RUP policy is slightly more restrictive than a fully open-access journal, but was a workable approach for RUP.

“It was a compromise policy,” says Thinh Nguyen, counsel of Science Commons in Boston who consulted with Rossner in crafting the policy. “In our view, it is a very good policy and a model for other traditional journals exploring hybrid approaches.” RUP is one of the few presses with subscription-based journals to adapt a Creative Commons license to make it compatible with the subscription business model.

Instead of thinking about how to control articles, Rossner has been a force in developing ways to distribute them as broadly as possible while maintaining a sustainable business model. “He is very open to trying new things. That’s what this industry needs now. There are a lot of problems and opportunities, and he is one looking for opportunities,” says Nguyen. “He is one of the pioneers.”

Emma Hill, executive editor of the JCB, encouraged Rossner to make the change in the copyright license when she came on board two years ago. “I pushed him on it,” she says. “He’s very receptive to new ideas and looking at what’s outdated to see how we can change it.” Hill says Rossner is a good combination of an “idealist and realist at the same time.”

This way of making scientific research more available will benefit everyone, says Hill. “There is an old-school mentality – a fear that change might negatively impact the business model. But this has clearly not been borne out at Rockefeller University Press,” she says. Response to the new policy has been positive from authors and readers.

An innovator early on

Rossner grew up in Rhode Island, where his father was a professor at Brown University. He became a scientist, earning his Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and did his post doc at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. Rossner says he didn’t have a passion about a particular research topic to propel him into a career in academia. He was good at floating and expressing ideas and had a knack at helping others write papers. He found his niche in scientific publishing.

In 1997, he came to Rockefeller as the managing editor of the Journal of Cell Biology. During his tenure, the journal became one of the first to announce a policy in 2001 to release its contents for free after six months. “Mike was a real leader on that,” says Ira Mellman, editor-in-chief of JCB from 1999-2008, who shared Rossner’s enthusiasm at breaking new ground. The move was a success: The journal didn’t lose revenue or market share, and it generated an enormous amount of respect in the scientific community.

Approaching his work with the eye of a scientist – not just a publisher – has led to some innovations at the Press and garnered him respect among his academic editors at JCB, as well as the larger community of cell biologists throughout the world.

“Mike distinguished himself with his scientific insight and judgment. He was really voracious about learning from us about our fields – he really did become a colleague,” says Mellman, now one of the Journal’s Senior Editors. Rossner is committed to being a custodian of scientific knowledge – a quality that is unusual in publishing, says Mellman.

In 2003, Rossner became the editorial director of the Press, expanding his responsibility to oversee operations of all three journals. He was promoted to executive director of the Press in December, 2006.

Challenging the system and insisting on integrity

Rossner has also instituted new standards for scientific publishing, raising the reputation of Rockefeller Press. In 2002, he developed a new screening program for all digital images in manuscripts accepted for publication to look for possible manipulation. This move was to ensure the quality and integrity of the data. The screening process has detected manipulation that affected the interpretation of the data in just over 1% of editorially accepted manuscripts. The journal revokes the acceptance of those manuscripts and does not publish them.

“Mike’s attitude, which we all share, is that you should be able to trust the integrity of the data,” says Mellman. While only a small percentage of the manipulations detected affect the interpretation of the data, publishers who don’t do this screening are dropping the ball and may be passing on suspicious or even fraudulent findings. Such work all too often causes confusion in the field, causes the unnecessary expenditure of precious grant funds in an effort to repeat the unrepeatable, and can waste the hard work of post docs and graduate students, says Mellman.

Journal publishers have a moral obligation to ensure the integrity of the data they publish, says Mellman. When it comes to digitally represented data, it is impossible for readers, or even peer reviewers, to pick up on subtle instances of inappropriate manipulation. “It is hard enough for us investigators to get the science right; at least the data we produce should be represented in an accurate and trustworthy fashion,” says Mellman.

Rossner has shared the image manipulation screening program with audiences at universities and businesses across the country and around the world and with many of his fellow publishers, some of whom have now adopted similar practices.

With this more stringent and effective approach to dealing with scientific images to detect inappropriate processing, Rossner is pushing scientific publishing, says David Lipman, director of the Computational Biology Branch at the National Institutes of Health. He is also working with collaborators to enable much deeper use of these images and better annotation by authors. “Mike represents the cream of the crop for not-for-profit scientific publishing,” says Lipman.

Another issue that Rossner has taken up is the validity of impact factors. Used to measure citations of science and social science journals, impact factors often determine the perceived importance of a journal. Many publications live and die by these numbers.

Rossner ran his own analysis of the citations and found that the numbers didn’t match the published data by the Institute for Scientific Information.

“My opinion is that citation data should be made public through PubMed,” says Rossner. “We as publishers are already submitting metadata to PubMed; why not include the citation data.”

Heather Joseph of SPARC says Rossner found the existing system less than transparent. “Mike has really pushed the envelope in looking for integrity in how journal article impact and value is measured,” she says.

Rossner also appears to be in tune with the financial stress on campuses and library budgets. The Rockefeller University Press was one of the first publishers to announce it will freeze all subscription prices for 2010.

“It was essentially a business decision. We are trying to retain subscriptions and one way to do so is by not raising prices – that’s the basic economics of it,” says Rossner. “We heard the calls from the librarians that they are suffering in this economic climate and feel we can do something to help them out.”

A relentless advocate

Rossner’s work on the cutting edge, to provide public access and challenging the status quo, is not typical in the world of publishing. His moves have put the spotlight on the Press and raised its reputation. So why aren’t other publishers following his lead? “Because there is money involved. A lot of people are making a lot of money by keeping their content under access control,” says Rossner.

Still, Rossner intends to keep advocating for change. When he’s not working at the Press, you can find him at the pool working out with his master’s swim team. He’s competed in open water swims in the Hudson River, off of the shores around New York City and in the San Francisco Bay.

“Mike is nothing if not passionate,” says Mellman. “He is the only publisher I know interested in using publishing as a force for change, progress and integrity in science,” says Mellman, now vice president of research oncology at Genentech in South San Francisco. “Mike is a good fiscal manager, an innovator, and as deeply committed to science as any laboratory scientist; he is an excellent model for what I think a publisher should be in the 21st century.”

-Written for SPARC by Caralee Adams, a freelance writer in Bethesda.


Editorial in favor of NIH policy 

Editorial against publisher bundling

Letters in opposition to publishing association policies

Letters in opposition to Conyer’s bill

Editorial against bundling

Editorial on image manipulation

Editorial describing RUP data screening process

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