Congress Considers Paywalling Science You Already Paid For

Photo by Pat Ossa. Full info below.

Should you be able to read research you’ve helped to fund? A few years ago, Congress decided this was a good idea, and approved an access policy that makes most taxpayer-funded research freely available online within 12 months of publication. This modest step toward open access — which, as I’ve written before, is vital to healthy science and science policy — has proven a huge boon to researchers and also to those of us who write about science, while leaving most publisher profits quite healthy.

Now, however, as UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen relates, a proposed bill threatens to reverse this policy:

The NIH Public Access Policy has been quite unpopular with a powerful publishing cartels that are hellbent on denying US taxpayers access to and benefits from research they paid to produce…. [U]nsatisfied with feeding at the public trough only once (the vast majority of the estimated $10 billion dollar revenue of biomedical publishers already comes from public funds), they are seeking to squeeze cancer patients and high school students for an additional $25 every time they want to read about the latest work of America’s scientists.

Unable to convince the NIH to support their schemes, the powerful publishing lobby group – the Association of American Publishers – has sought Congressional relief. In 2009, the AAP induced Michigan Rep John Conyers to introduce the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” which would have ended the NIH Public Access Policy before it even got off the ground. Fortunately, that bill never left committee.

But they are back at it. A new AAP backed bill – the “Research Works Act” – was just introduced by Reps Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Dareell Issa (R-CA). Its text is simple and odious:

    No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that:
    (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or
    (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

This bill would not only end the NIH’s Public Access Policy, but it would forbid any effort on the part of any agency to ensure taxpayer access to work funded by the federal government.

Why, you might ask, would Carolyn Maloney, representing a liberal Democratic district in New York City that is home to many research institutions, sponsor such a reactionary piece of legislation that benefits a group of wealthy publishers at the expense of the American public? Hmm. Wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with the fact that she’s the biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the publishing industry, would it?

Eisen supplies a rather discouraging chart:

According to MapLight, which tracks political contributions, Dutch publisher Elsevier and its senior executives made 31 contributions to members of the House in 2011, of which 12 went to Representative Maloney. This includes contributions from 11 senior executives or partners, only one of whom is a resident of her district.

It is inexcusable that a simple idea – that no American should be denied access to biomedical research their tax dollars paid to produce – could be scuttled by a greedy publisher who bought access to a member of Congress.

He suggests you write your reps.

Some sharp coverage elsewhere:

Congress wants to limit open access publishing for the US government’s $28B/year subsidized research – Boing Boing

The Tree of Life: YHGTBFKM: Ecological Society of America letter regarding #OpenAccess is disturbing

Scientists, the White House seeks your opinion on Open Access – bjoern.brembs.blog

Cameron Neylon:: Time for scholarly publishers to disavow the AAP

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Photo by capturedmoment1 via Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Related:

Michael Eisen:  Elsevier-funded NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney Wants to Deny Americans Access to Taxpayer Funded Research

Free Science, One Paper at a Time (My feature on open science)

32 responses

  1. Why shouldn’t this information be freely available? Those companies that would gain the most from these research documents will buy them and move on, but why make it difficult for students and/or independent researchers?  To what end?  It’s not protecting anything, it’s simply a money grab…on something our taxes helped pay for.  If the only method was to buy a physical copy then $25 is pretty reasonable, but if it’s made available digitally why?

    • And it’s not like over the last 10 years, the buildings were actual science are being done have shifted from 80% American to 60% Asian. Beyond the ridiculous policy of importing non-Americans to fill the science jobs (due to their other policy of underfunding/low pay for the actual labor), this non-American workforce would have total access to all American reseatch anyway. It’s not as if you can keep research in non-government facilities a secret regardless. And it’s also not like the Chinese/non-Americans are going to pay any of the publishers for a copy – ever. Somone will just make an e-copy of everything at a university and send it out.   

      • Are you daft?  Not only does nothing you have posted relate to the arguement at hand.  It simply isn’t true.  (Well the underpaid scientific labor force is pretty accurate.)  Your asian rant is a bit unwarranted and smacks of racism.  I work at a research university in a lab, yes Asians, including Chinese are well represented.  However, we all get paid the same crappy salary.  The difference, Immigrants in the lab environment are largely trying to get masters and PhD degrees.  Something Americans have largely come to realize are poor investments.  Typically, student pay is much lower than research assistant pay.  This, however, does not mean we are trying to outsource science in the US, but simply that immigrant cultures have not yet caught on to the true value of an advanced degree in the sciences.   

        The larger issue here is this legislation will not only increase the cost of publicly funded research, but it will also stifle progress.  Science is information, impede the flow and you kill it.  In my opinion the publisher has no right to charge the public for something the public funded in the first place.  Copyright law in general is getting out of hand.  The primary always was, and always should be to promote new works and innovation.   This present hijacking to ensure the profits of the publishers is disgusting and untenable.

  2. Why are politicians allowed to accept money in such sums? Other government employees are not permitted to accept money or gifts totalling more than $50. Can we end the corruption please?

    • You can’t be serious? This is nothing. Most politicians accept HUGE bribes/payoffs via there family members…zero interest loans which are paid off by contributors. My cousin is a tax attorney associated with the ‘Heritage Foundation’ and his job is funneling cash via employment/consulting checks to politicians’ family members…over $400 milllion last year.

    • That’s an interesting connection. I’ve never heard it couched in that way (politicians and government workers). It presents an interesting perspective to the “Get Money Out” movement. 

      With Gratitude,

      Jeremiah

    • because lobbying for influence on the law by directly giving money is the way that the U.S. political system works, very openly and seemingly by design. The fact that any U.S. politician can criticise political corruption in other countries with a straight face is simply astounding to observers from outside.

    • what gifts? these are just campaign contributions. oh and we also bought 10,000 copies of your book…………………….

  3. couldnt agree with this article more.  also, they need to beef up penalties for failing to comply with foia requests for publiclly funded research data thats currently being hidden by institutions such as uva and penn state!

  4. A magazine publisher should not be forced to publish their articles for free, which is what this article is asking.  If NIH wants to provide funding for a free access journal, I am all for it.  Running a peer-reviewed journal, and hosting an online repository with good search tools and a large (and growing) inventory predating electronic submission is expensive.  Plus, many of these companies perform the typefacing, layout, and editing as well.  Should the authors pay for these services, discouraging publishing?  These companies do provide a service, and should be compensated.  The cost for non-subscribers is too high, but forcing people to work for free is no answer.  Also, remember these are INTERNATIONAL repositories of copyrighted works funded from a variety of sources, including private companies.

    • Adam, a number of high-quality peer-reviewed open access biomedical journals exist already (e.g. the BioMedCentral and PNAS journals).   Compelling NIH-funded researchers to publish there, rather than giving exclusive rights to publish their work to commercial companies, doesn’t do any harm and does a lot of good.  For these open access journals, the cost of operation is covered by page charges, that the author generally pays for via their gov’t (e.g. NIH) research grant.  So in effect the NIH is funding the existing open access biomedical journals, but via a more effective route than the NIH actively hosting a journal (i.e. via paying page charges for publication in existing high-quality open access journals).  The only issue here is that commercial journals have historically-acquired prestige attached to them, so that researchers still like to publish in them.

      While the high cost of buying research articles is annoying to independent researchers, high school students, etc. — the truth is these folks almost never pay for articles anyway.  Who pays is university libraries, funded by tax dollars.  So the commercial scientific publishers profit via serving as a middleman between the taxpayers (who fund the scientists) and the taxpayers (who buy the journals, via funding university libraries)….  They serve no useful role nowadays and should be allowed, or even pushed, to die.  Of course they did serve a useful role back before the Net existed.

    • Adam, a number of high-quality peer-reviewed open access biomedical journals exist already (e.g. the BioMedCentral and PNAS journals).   Compelling NIH-funded researchers to publish there, rather than giving exclusive rights to publish their work to commercial companies, doesn’t do any harm and does a lot of good.  For these open access journals, the cost of operation is covered by page charges, that the author generally pays for via their gov’t (e.g. NIH) research grant.  So in effect the NIH is funding the existing open access biomedical journals, but via a more effective route than the NIH actively hosting a journal (i.e. via paying page charges for publication in existing high-quality open access journals).  The only issue here is that commercial journals have historically-acquired prestige attached to them, so that researchers still like to publish in them.

      While the high cost of buying research articles is annoying to independent researchers, high school students, etc. — the truth is these folks almost never pay for articles anyway.  Who pays is university libraries, funded by tax dollars.  So the commercial scientific publishers profit via serving as a middleman between the taxpayers (who fund the scientists) and the taxpayers (who buy the journals, via funding university libraries)….  They serve no useful role nowadays and should be allowed, or even pushed, to die.  Of course they did serve a useful role back before the Net existed.

    • Adam,

      Thanks for writing. I treat some of the issues you raise in more depth in the feature article linked (“Free Science, One Paper at a Time”). But as to this article and this issue, I do not here or anywhere else suggest publishing as charity. As noted in other comments, an alternate model is to charge the researcher rare than the reader — a marginal addition to the total cost of research, but one that magnifies e research’s alum by sharing it with all. And this specific bill seeks to reverse a policy that merely requires full sharing after an entire year — a model in place for over two years now, and which has left publisher income robust. Nowhere do I suggest that publishers should “be forced to publish their articles for free.”

    • Scientific journals DO NOT publish articles for free – ever. You PAY to publish the articles as ‘advertisements’, and they charge by page, for figures over a limit, and color pages. Also, for the most part, scientists have to do ALL the work to get the articles to publishing quality, from text to images, to layout. The submission software then does a minor portion of the work. Most journals have a very tiny staff and therefore require only limited budgets.   

  5. “He suggests you write your reps”

    I wrote my reps about how “WMD in Iraq” was all lies, and murdering innocent Muslims to steal their assets was wrong.

    We all know how well that worked out.

  6. If someone accepts taxpayer money, they should be REQUIRED to explain in detail what is being done with that money. If they don’t like the policy, tough shit! Then don’t ask for taxpayer money! If you want our money, you’re sure as Hell will tell us what you do with it!

    • Actually, you ARE required to submitt in detail the work you propose BEFORE you even have the possibility of getting funded. You then also report YEARLY on progress, and at the end of the graning period. Further, if you do not publish, that is heavily considered when decide if you will receive any new grants, so only highly productive scientists are funded. It’s the best bang for the bukc US taxpayers every spend. In fact, every dollar spent on science returns to the economy ten fold. Little else the government does can say that. .

      • Did you read the article? That may be how it works now, but companies are paying off congressmen to change that.

      • No, go back and read it again.  The article pertains to published works.  Simply, publishers who are required to provide a scientific paper after the first year of publication to the public for free, will no longer have to do so.  This is wrong for many reasons.  One of which I think will be important to you.  The works in question have been funded by public funds and grants.  These works are most useful to others using public funds and grants to further the work.  How does it make sense for the public to generate content, and then allow a publisher to sell that content to the public.  Costing additional funds for something that has already been bought once.

  7. This is just another example of IP law having been subsumed by the corporation.  All I can say is, read books, then pass them along while we can still read.

  8. I wonder if Americans will every put an end to their elected leaders taking their money and giving it to the filthy rich. We need to redefine treason to include elected or appointed government leaders that take an oath to protect America and Americans but consistently betray Americans for profit.

    • Just because we have a corrupt government that does not mean that government serves no good function. Defunding government is like not paying your mortgage as a cost savings mechinism. It makes more sense to fix the problem, whereas cuting of its head will make things much much worse. The problem is not simple and if you think it is then simple is a way of life.

      • Yes, the federal government does serve a few functions.  They’re contained in the constitution, and taking money from citizens involuntary to fund someone else’s pet research project is not one of them.

      • Please, for all of us reading your interpretation of the Constitution, define “promote the general welfare” for us?
        It’s such a broad term, isn’t it, akagaga?
        With all of your expertise in Constitutional law, please, school the rest of us.

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