Fri 6 Jan 2012
On the heels of SOPA, a bill that will make libraries vulnerable to lawsuits and felony charges for trying to do essential library functions (preservation and access to cultural works), comes another worrisome piece of legislation. The problematic bill is H.R. 3699, the “Research Works Act“.
Basically, the aim of the bill is to step back from recent reforms advocated by the “open science” community and prohibit federal agencies from requiring open access to the outcomes of grant funded research. For example, the bill would stop the NIH from requiring public access to $20+ billion in NIH funded medical research. The bill would further entrench the current system and hugely costly system of scholarly communications, that works as a lucrative subsidy for [increasingly monopolistic] commercial publishers.
Commercial publishers, like Elsevier see huge profit margins, on the order of 35%. They have an excellent business model, since they don’t pay their authors or reviewers. The vast bulk of the blood sweat and tears behind a publication comes from grant funded research, presented (for free) by researchers, and reviewed and edited by other research peers (as a free service to their community). The publishers get all that effort and the copyright, then they lease it all back to universities (many of which are public institutions) under huge subscription regimes with draconian access and intellectual property controls. The costs of serial publications has exploded over the past two decades, and we even see some academic publishers suing faculty and universities for including works in course websites behind login barriers. The title of a recent article in the Guardian sums it up nicely: “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist”
University libraries deal with crushing price escalation by reducing services and passing costs to the rest of the university, which means tuition hikes, reduced faculty salaries, reduced research budgets, and reduced faculty hiring. It’s part of the reason why higher-education is such a dreadful mess. Disciplines like archaeology suffer disproportionately, since archaeology is relatively low in priority in terms of funding and facilities, and is more likely to see cuts.
The fact that so many archaeological researchers routinely and uncritically continue to participate in a manifestly broken system of closed-access scholarly communications is ultimately self-defeating. If archaeological researchers want to see their discipline thrive, they really need to pay much more attention to how their research is communicated. This bill would make it harder to reform the status quo and reduce the costs, access restrictions, and intellectual property encumbrances that stifle research.
So please speak up and actively lobby against this bill. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a non-profit coalition of libraries, has an invaluable set of resources for contacting your legislators about this misguided bill.
It looks like the Ecological Society of America (ESA) has a disturbing response to this, by putting the interest of its publishing wing ahead of the interests of its members. Jonathan Eisen does a brilliant critique of the ESA’s confusion on these issues. The ESA’s position reminds me of the American Anthropological Association’s high-profile (and highly problematic) lobbying against open access 5 (!) years ago. (Savage Minds also has some good, pointed critique of the open access opponents, keeping up the same good work they’ve been doing for over 6 years!)
In some ways I can’t believe that we’re still having these fights; the broken status quo is very, very deeply entrenched. I wonder what would happen if libraries would just cancel subscriptions in mass. Perhaps then we’ll see some pretty rapid adoption of open access.
Wow! Lots of blogosphere / Tweetosphere activity about this bill. Jason Baird Jackson provides some great links, including a post by UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen noting how one of the bill’s sponsors Rep. Maloney gets lots of donations from Elsevier (no less!). Search and web-services on those data are provided by MapLight, a leading open government / transparency organization. It looks like the Research Works Act represents one of the best laws money can buy.