There’s a bill in Congress called “The Research Works Act”1 which threatens open access to science in a very disturbing way. The bill basically gives control of publicly funded research to private companies. There’s a petition to oppose this bill. I wanted to write up why I think we should sign it.
Unlike many bills, The Research Works Act has very short text:
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.
Now, this seems like a reasonable request at first glance. It sounds like we’re saying “If private people paid for it, private people should own it,” right?
Wrong. Let’s look at the definitions in this bill:
In this Act:
- (1) AUTHOR- The term `author’ means a person who writes a private-sector research work. Such term does not include an officer or employee of the United States Government acting in the regular course of his or her duties.
- (2) NETWORK DISSEMINATION- The term `network dissemination’ means distributing, making available, or otherwise offering or disseminating a private-sector research work through the Internet or by a closed, limited, or other digital or electronic network or arrangement.
- (3) PRIVATE-SECTOR RESEARCH WORK- The term `private-sector research work’ means an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government (as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States Code), describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a Federal agency and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing. Such term does not include progress reports or raw data outputs routinely required to be created for and submitted directly to a funding agency in the course of research.
What’s the gist of this? Let’s look at the National Institutes of Health for an example:
The NIH is a publicly funded institution. Taxpayers– you– pay for its existence. You also pay for the research they do. Because the NIH knows that you pay for their research, when researchers publish papers2 the require that the researchers also post the research for free, to you, on their website.
You pay for the reasearch, you should have access to it.
The Research Works Act would make that illegal. Under the act, any “network dissemination” of that research is illegal. The NIH can’t offer it to you for free, the scientist can’t give it away for free. The publishing company owns the information.
You pay for reasearch, you might, if the company wishes it, be able to pay dearly for it… again.
This is wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a free market citizen. In fact, I’m something of a corporate zealot. After spending years working for the government– a proud publicly paid employee– I got completely fed up with the government’s inability to accomplish what I thought was possible. I left to start a company instead.
I’m a believer in the corporation. It’s the nearly perfect problem-solving entity. In fact, I don’t think of a corporations purpose as “revenue generation,” I see their purpose as “problem solution.” But they solve those problems within a market, and people pay for the solution, so everyone wins. I believe corporations should be allowed to make money within that market. What I do not believe, is that our government should enshrine a market for the corporation. That’s not a market, that’s a baby crib. Nice, protect, safe, with mommy’s breast readily available.
If the market does not exist, or is not strong enough, then the corporation needs to put its big-boy panties on and get lean, or get lost. Period.
Government should not make laws that take tax-payer funded information and require taxpayers to pay corporations for it again. This is not the protection of the real market, and it is not the protection of market values. This is the governmental protection of corporate profits by creating an unreal market.3
Publishers argue that they add value to the work because it is their peer review process that confirms scientific legitimacy.
That’s complete bullshit. I’ve been part of this process. It involves me volunteering my time to review a scientific paper. If this is a “service” that the publishing companies offer, then they are offering it because thousands of people are working for them for free. The publishing company doesn’t do this, university scientists, while they are getting public salaries, donate their time to do this. And they’re mandated to do it, and do it for free. Not by the government, but by the community. I dare you to try to be a scientist without participation in the peer-review process.
The “added value” that the publishers offer is essentially the time of public scientists who are volunteering because they have to. The publishing companies make a mint off of this public time. The researchers do the work, do all the writing, and do all the peer review. Meanwhile, the publishing companies rake in amazing profits.4
I’m not against all of that. It’s a great system. Companies taking advantage of a market? Fine. Sounds like a good deal.
But now we have this thing called The Internet. Now we have this idea of “openness.” Now we have a public that demands open information, that demands access to the research that they paid for– and we have the tools to give them that access, easily.
In short, we have a market that changed– and a publishing industry that, rather than changing and growing up, sits in its crib crying for mommy’s breast of federal subsidies.
This bill is not about protecting a real market. This bill is about enshrining a federal subsidy of the scientific publishing industry. Let’s call it what it is.
If the federal government wants to subsidize the publishing industry to protect its profits, it should say that. If the federal government wants to allow a publishing company to use old-market strategies, by making the new market reality illegal, it should say that. If the federal government wants to restrict access to publicly financed scientific research by putting that research into corporate ownership, it should say that.
And then we’d all acknowledge that this bill should fail.
If we keep passing federal laws to protect and subsidize companies and markets solely to protect their historic profits in a changing market, we risk ruining the entire idea of a free market altogether. If I have a company and can talk the federal government into passing arbitrary laws that make my company profitable despite market forces, it may seem like a good deal to me. It is emphatically not a good deal to our country.
Publicly funded scientific research should be public. Period. If a company cannot remain profitable given that constraint then the result is simple: The company perishes. It is not Congress’ mission to protect the lives of private companies as if they were fragile fluffy bunnies, protecting them from the big-scary coyote called ‘a free market economy.’