Rep. Conyers, Once Again, Trying To Lock Up Federally Funded Research

from the isn't-that-a-problem? dept

Last year, Congress finally got fed up with the fact that publicly funded research was being locked up in various scientific journals. The whole journal business is something of a scam. Unlike other publications, the folks who write the papers for journals pay the journals to get their content published. On top of that, the "peers" who review the works aren't paid for their work either. In other words, these journals get a ton of free labor... and sometimes that labor pays them. And, then, on top of that, they charge ridiculously high prices for anyone to subscribe, claim the copyright on all submitted works, and are incredibly aggressive in enforcing that copyright. An academic I knew, at one point had to consider doing an experiment a second time just to get the same results, because mentioning the earlier results of his own study might violate the copyright of the journal. And, remember, much of this is happening with research that was funded by taxpayers.

So, Congress decided that any research that was funded by NIH (which funds about $30 billion in research each year) had to also be openly published one-year after it was published in the journal. It's hard to see how this damages the journals at all. They still retain a significant monopoly right on the works -- and have a year's head start. Yet, the journal publishers have been screaming bloody murder, and even trying to force academics to pay thousands of dollars to cover the "cost" of republishing the article in an open archiving database.

And, of course, those publishers have been complaining like crazy to Congress. Last year, Rep. Conyers (who also recently introduced the RIAA's preferred legislation, and was heavily backed by the American Intellectual Property Law Association in his most recent election) introduced some legislation to repeal this requirement, though the legislation went nowhere fast. However, he's wasted very little time introducing identical legislation this year.
Right before Conyers brought this legislation back, Stanford Professor John Willinsky published a well-worth reading article explaining why the publishers' objections to the requirement to openly publish makes no sense. Their general argument is that this is the government interfering with private businesses. But, of course, that's not true at all. As Willinsky notes, the only reason that particular private business exists as it does is because the government interfered in the form of giving them copyright:
What is held to be "unfair" in the bill is government interference with the publisher's exclusive ownership over research. This is not, however, a case of keeping the government's clumsy hand off a free market. The scholarly publishing market depends on government interference in the first instance. The government allows publishers to exercise monopoly rights over this research through copyright law, a form of market interference....
Furthermore, Willinsky mentions the original, Constitutional purpose behind said copyright: "To promote the progress of science and the useful arts..." Congress gets to determine what promotes the progress, and if it's shown that open publication of publicly funded works promotes that progress, then the journals should have no argument at all. But, argue they will... so, Public Knowledge and The Alliance for Taxpayer Access are both asking people to write their elected representatives to oppose this attempt to once again lock up the very research that we all funded as taxpayers.
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Filed Under: copyright, john conyers, journals, nih, open access, research


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  1. identicon
    LostSailor, 12 Feb 2009 @ 1:55pm

    Overstating and oversimplifying

    Once again, Mike is overstating and oversimplifying an issue that is more complex. And this particular issue has been around for almost 20 years.

    STM publishing is a bit more complex than publishing digital music or even books. The articles are usually highly technical and costly to produce. But there are many, many facets to this issue than Mike covers (or than I can address in comments).

    First, some perspective. Nearly all STM publishers allow authors to archive their manuscripts as soon as they are accepted for publication (of course, before that, they're free to archive their original unpublished manuscripts). Nearly all STM publishers have invested heavily in their own publishing platforms that make resource discovery and access to articles robust and usually free after an initial exclusivity period.

    Institutional (university) archives, generally open to anyone associated with the university and often open to the public, have been around for many, many years, but have generally failed to achieve the same level of accessibility to research that most publishers provide and most university libraries are rethinking their archiving strategy.

    Even PubMedCentral, the NIH site, makes use of the value added by publishers even with just pre-publication peer-review. Further, most STM publishers allow and/or facilitate delivery of the final manuscript (and sometimes the final published version) to the PMC archive, which makes use of the publisher's value-added editing, mark-up and prep of charts, illustrations and figures. This is not an inconsiderable value, as highly technical articles often require a lot of very specialized markup to make, for example, complex mathematical formulas render correctly digitally across different platforms, browsers, etc.

    Most of the Open Access advocates try to minimize the value that commercial STM publishers add, while saying that Open Access journals add value. Open Access Journals are an interesting business model for scholarly communication, but they, too, have to pay the bills and either charge author fees to publish (usually thousands of dollars, with waivers for hardship authors) or survive on outside subvention in lieu of subscription revenue.

    The other argument in favor of publishers that is regularly downplayed by Open Access advocates is the role of government mandated deposit of articles resulting from NIH (mainly medical at the moment) funded research is the fact that government is now becoming a publisher. If the commercial publishers are driven out of business, and government becomes a primary controller of such information, there is the very real danger of hidden censorship. Open Access advocates routinely dismiss this concern, yet there is ample evidence that the last administration manipulated the reporting of scientific information to suit their political agenda.

    Copyright is only a very small facet to issues of scholarly publishing, which are more complex than this post would make out.

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