CHORUS is now live - how does it stack up to PubMed?

What is CHORUS and why is it important to know about if you’re an academic? From the FAQ (bold emphasis mine):

CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States) is a not-for-profit public-private partnership to provide public access to the peer-reviewed publications that report on federally funded research. Conceived by publishers as a public access solution for funding agencies, research institutions, and the public, CHORUS is in active development with more than 100 signatories (and growing). Five goals drive CHORUS’ functionality: identification, discovery, access, preservation, and compliance. CHORUS is an information bridge, supporting agency search portals and enabling users to easily find free, public access journal articles on publisher platforms.

Only it fails in the one thing that it claims to support, public access - at least as far as I can tell so far. And this is the big worry we’ve had all along, that a paywall publisher backed solution to the White House’s OSTP mandate would not work. For a critical overview of the concerns see Michael Eisen’s comments from one year ago when CHORUS was announced.

Why isn’t CHORUS working?

Let us jump right into doing a search. Here’s an example query for NIH funded research. When I ran this search today (August 1, 2014) I got only 3,775 results. Hmmm. That can’t be right, can it? Only 3,775 NIH funded articles? Moving on…

The first result I got was to an article published July 2014 in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. Click the DOI expecting public access, and I hit a paywall. Oh wait, that’s right - CHORUS also indexes embargoed research set to actually be public open access in 12-24+ months. Next several search results - same paywall. Not until the fifth result do I reach an Open Access article.

OK fine. Perhaps it is reasonable to include a mix of embargoed papers with public open access papers - even though OPEN RESEARCH is in the name of CHORUS. I’ll just click the filter for actual public open access papers and see my results. Hmm, unfortunately there is no filter for actual public open access papers. Ruh-rohs. 

And there does not appear to be any labeling on search results indicating whether a paper is actually public open access or still embargoed (for some unknown period of 1-2 years). Ruh-rohs again.

Are we just seeing teething pains here? In some things for sure, for example only having 3,775 NIH results (when there are millions). It can take time to get all of that backlog from publishers (though I don’t know why they’d launch with such a paltry number). However, I don’t believe the lack of Open Access labels or ability to search only for papers already Open Access (rather than embargoed) is a teething problem. That’s a major oversight and makes you wonder why it was left out in a system designed by a consortium of paywall publishers. I can’t imagine SPARC, for example, leaving out an Open Access filter if they had built this search.

What else is wrong with CHORUS? 

The above was just one technical problem, albeit a very concerning one. The main issue is the inherent conflict of interest that exists in allowing subscription publishers the ability to control a major research portal. As Michael Eisen put it, that’s like allowing the NRA to be in charge of background checks and the gun permit database.

In the title I asked, “how does CHROUS stack up to PubMed?” We need to make this comparison since one of the aims of CHORUS is to direct readers to the journal website, instead of reading/downloading from PubMed Central (PMC).

Perhaps most importantly, CHORUS allows publishers to retain reader traffic on their own journal sites, rather than sending the reader to a third party repository.

And if you believe Scholarly Kitchen then PMC is robbing advertising revenues from publishers and PMC is costing taxpayers money as a useless redundant index of actual public/open access papers. Let’s not mince words, Scholarly Kitchen (and by extension the Society for Scholarly Publishing) believes that PubMed and PMC should be shut down. No one believes taxpayer money should be needlessly wasted, but it is a tall order to replace PubMed and PMC, so our expectations for CHORUS should be just as high.

Unfortunately, it is clear from using the CHORUS search tool that I have far less access and insight into publicly available research. And while an open API is slated for the future, it is questionable whether it will be as feature rich as NCBI’s own API into PubMed and PMC. 

CHORUS also fragments an otherwise aggregated index with PubMed. CHORUS looks to index only US-based federally funded research that is either Open Access or slated to be after a lengthy embargo. This means you still need to rely on PMC to find a non-US funded Open Access article. Clearly we still want that since it helps US researchers, right? Then why shut PMC down?

CHORUS isn’t free either. They’ve set the business model up such that publishers pay to have their articles indexed there. Do you think publishers are going to absorb those costs, or pass it along to authors/subscribers? The fact that CHORUS won’t index unless a publisher pays is rather scary; especially if CHORUS were to ever become the defacto database for finding research.

In Summary

I think CHORUS will improve over time, for sure. My worries though are the inherent conflicts of interest and that a major mouthpiece for CHORUS is calling for the removal of PubMed and PMC. I’m also skeptical whenever I see an organization using deceptive acronyms. CHORUS is not a database of Open Research as its name suggests. At least not ‘Open’ in the sense that the US public thinks of open.

You see, if CHORUS can convince the public and US Congress or OSTP that research under a two year embargo is still 'open’ then they’ve won. It’s a setback for what is really Open Access. Nothing short of marketing genius (or manufactured consent) to insert Open Research into the organizational name. 

I think these are legitimate concerns that researchers and the OSTP should be asking of CHORUS.