Beware the Academic-Publishing Complex!

Today’s New York Times contains an important editorial on an attempt by some congressmen to undermine access to federally funded research.  See Michael B. Eisen, “Research Bought, Then Paid ForNew York Times (January 11, 2012).  Eisen’s editorial alerts us to this attempt to undo a federal legal requirement that requires federally funded medical research be made available, for free, on the National Library of Medicine’s Web site (NLM).

As a founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which is committed to promoting and implementing the free distribution of scientific research, Eisen may be regarded as an “interested” ora  biased commentator.  Such a simple-minded ascription of bias would be wrong. The PLoS has become an important distribution source of research results in the world of science, and competes with the publishing oligarchies:  Elsevier, Springer, and others.  The articles of the sort that PLoS makes available for free are sold by publishers for $40 or more.  Subscriptions from these oligarchical sources are often priced in the thousands of dollars per year. Eisen’s simple and unassailable point is that the public, whether the medical profession, patients and citizens, students and teachers, should be able to read about the results of research funded with their tax monies.

“[I]f the taxpayers paid for it, they own.”

The United States government and its employees do not enjoy copyright protections for their creative work (and they do not), neither should their contractors.

Public access is all the more important given that the mainstream media seems so reluctant or unable to cover scientific research in a thoughtful and incisive way.

The Bill goes beyond merely unraveling a requirement of making published papers available free of charge at the NLM.    The language of the Bill, H.R.3699, the Research Works Act, creates a false dichotomy between public and private sector research:


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 … .”

Work that is conducted in private or in state universities, but funded by the federal taxpayers, cannot be said to be “private” in any meaningful sense.  The public’s access to this research, as well as its underlying data, is especially important when the subject matter of the research involves issues that are material to public policy and litigation disputes.

Who is behind this bailout for the private-sector publishing industry?  Congressman Darrell Issa (California) introduced the Bill, on December 16, 2011.  The Bill was cosponsored by Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, the Democratic representative of New York’s 14th district.  Oh Lord, Congresswoman Maloney represents me!  NOT.  How humiliating to be associated with this regressive measure.

This heavy-handed piece of legislation was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  Let us hope it dies a quick death in committee.  See Michael Eisen, “Elsevier-funded NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney Wants to Deny Americans Access to Taxpayer Funded Research” (Jan. 5, 2012).

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