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The Research Works Act: asking the public to pay twice for scientific knowledge.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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There’s been a lot of buzz in the science blogosphere recently about the Research Works Act, a piece of legislation that’s been introduced in the U.S. that may have big impacts on open access publishing of scientific results. John Dupuis has an excellent round-up of posts on the subject. I’m going to add my two cents on the overarching ethical issue.

Here’s the text of the Research Works Act:

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. …

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.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Let’s take this at the most basic level. If public money is used to fund scientific research, does the public have a legitimate expectation that the knowledge produced by that research will be shared with the public? If not, why not? (Is the public allocating scarce public funds to scientific knowledge-building simply to prop up that sector of the economy and/or keep the scientists off the streets?)

Assuming that the public has the right to share in the knowledge built on the public’s dime, should the public have to pay to access that knowledge (at around $30 per article) from a private sector journal? The text of the Research Works Act suggests that such private sector journals add value to the research that they publish in the form of peer review and editing. Note, however, that peer review for scientific journals is generally done by other scientists in the relevant field for free. Sure, the journal editors need to be able to scare up some likely candidates for peer reviewers, email them, and secure their cooperation, but the value being added in terms of peer reviewing here is added by volunteers. (Note that the only instance of peer reviewing in which I’ve participated where I’ve actually been paid for my time involved reviewing grant proposals for a federal agency. In other words, the government doesn’t think peer review should be free … but a for-profit publishing concern can help itself to free labor and claim to have added value by virtue of it.)

Maybe editing adds some value, although journal editors of private sector journals have been taken to task for favoring flashy results, and for occasionally subverting their own peer review process to get those flashy results published. But there’s something like agreement that the interaction between scientists that happens in peer review (and in post-publication discussions of research findings) is what makes it scientific knowledge. That is to say, peer review is recognized as the value-adding step science could not do without.

The public is all too willing already to see public money spent funding scientific research as money wasted. If members of the public have to pay again to access research their tax dollars already paid for, they are likely to be peeved. They would not be wrong to feel like the scientific community had weaseled out of fulfilling its obligation to share the knowledge it builds for the good of the public. (Neither would they be wrong to feel like their government had fallen down on an ethical obligation to the public here, but whose expectations of their government aren’t painfully low at the moment?) A rightfully angry public could mean less public funding for scientific research — which means that there are pragmatic, as well as ethical, reasons for scientists to oppose the Research Works Act.

And, whether or not the Research Works Act becomes the law of the land in the USA, perhaps scientists’ ethical obligations to share publicly funded knowledge with the public ought to make them think harder — individually and as a professional community — about whether submitting their articles to private sector journals, or agreeing to peer review submission for private sector journals, is really compatible with living up to these obligations. There are alternatives to these private sector journals, such as open access journals. Taking those alternatives seriously probably requires rethinking the perceived prestige of private sector journals and how metrics of that prestige come into play in decisions about hiring, promotion, and distribution of research funds, but sometimes you have to do some work (individually and as a professional community) to live up to your obligations.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 10:21 pm 01/6/2012

    Are authors of research reports published in scientific journals paid by journals?

    If not, publishing scientific journals should be quite profitable…

    The RWA would be quite reasonable if no public funds contributed to the production of the research.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 10:25 pm 01/6/2012

    No, authors pay to publish – various page charges, image charges, reprint charges, etc.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Desert Navy 12:59 am 01/7/2012

    The publishing issue is just a drop in the ocean. The government funds research while corporations and universities are pretty much free to profit from any civilian applications derived from the research which was performed on the public dime. Patents, products and even entire industries spawned with no reimbursement or piece of the pie for the government.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Ed Greding 3:23 am 01/7/2012

    I cannot comment in a way appropriate to all scientific areas, but in my own (evolutionary biology of certain vertebrates) researchers are not paid for their research or their articles, nor do they often have to pay. The college or university with which they are associated will often pay for them, and if not, the society publishing the article absorbs the cost. Articles are peer-reviewed. Often the primary motive for the work involved is simply the abiding interest and dedication on the part of the scientist. Many politicians and business-persons might have difficulty comprehending or accepting this as a motive. Having one’s work published in a reputable journal and known to others interested in the same areas of knowledge is generally regarded as sufficient payment.
    It is felt that the public benefits from whatever addition to the edifice of science results.

    Link to this
  5. 5. JamesDavis 8:36 am 01/7/2012

    “Bora Zivkovic”: Not all publishing companies charge authors to publish their work. I own a publishing company, Davis E-Book Publishing –, and the only time the author pays is if they need an editor or illustrator. All our editors and illustrators are freelance and hired outside the company.

    Scientific research papers should not be edited because some very important information could be changed or edited out. The papers should be presented the way the scientist conducted the research. If the peer reviewers cannot understand what the scientist is saying then they can ask the scientist to explain their work.

    A lot of people would pay $30.00 to read current research if they knew that half of that money is going back to the author or the university to help to continue their research. I could set up a digital journal where the scientist could publish their work free and the public review would pay $30.00 to review it, and the author or university would get 50%. If there is any scientist or university interested…contact me.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 9:13 am 01/7/2012

    Ed Greding:
    I’m certainly an uninformed outside observer, but aren’t researchers also highly motivated to publish research by professional advancement demands, i.e., ‘publish or perish’, whether employed by academic or commercial research organizations? This factor seems to sometimes produce a great deal of competition among researchers to report findings before any competitive groups working in the same area.

    IMO, competion may also play a role in reviewers propensity to dismiss submissions that disagree with established research, even with compelling supporting evidence, as careers have been advanced based on prior research.

    Conversely, established researchers associated with respected organizations may find publication acceptance with little challenge. I recall one publication representative saying something to the effect that many of now discredited, once prolific, award winning physicist Jan Hendrik Schön’s papers (some with replicated result data) were accepted with little scrutiny because he worked for a highly respected research organization (Bell Labs).

    Of course, career progression opportunities and opportunities for income from book publications, TV programs, etc. all are potentially increased with publication of successful research. While all researchers may view their primary motivation as the magnanimous advancement of science, everyone’s got to make a living…

    I’m really not intending to disparage researchers with these observations – just trying to inject a little realism…

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  7. 7. Onoku 11:31 am 01/7/2012

    I see this as a big no no. If the research is done with public money, it should be public knowledge without further costs to access it. I have no issue with them wanting to charge you for privately funded research, but to do so for public funded research is a bit asinine.

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  8. 8. AlRodbell 11:59 am 01/7/2012

    I had long thought that we should be going in the other direction, making the full research study of any gov. supported research available to the public. Newspapers are notorious for getting the story wrong, reporting statistical significance to mean substantial, which is not the case. This confuses the public, and is misleading, yet it continues as it gets the work reported.

    Unless the full research is available, only the public is dependent on self serving P.R. of the research, to the detriment of all.

    This bill is a travesty

    Link to this
  9. 9. Bora Zivkovic 5:22 pm 01/7/2012

    Some (usually top) TA journals charge publication fees. Most don’t but may charge additional stuff (color figures, etc.)

    Most (usually top) OA journals charge publication fees. Most don’t.

    Ergo: Open Access does not equal author-pay model. These questions are orthogonal to each other. Both TA and OA journals have different models for finances.

    But – nobody pays researchers for their work. Nobody pays peer-reviewers. If and when there is any flow of money, it is always from the researchers to the journal. And that usually comes from a grant. And that is tax-payers money.

    Link to this
  10. 10. StevanHarnad 8:39 pm 01/7/2012

    “Research Works Act H.R.3699:
    The Private Publishing Tail Trying To Wag The Public Research Dog, Yet Again”


    The US Research Works Act (H.R.3699): “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.”

    Translation and Comments:

    “If public tax money is used to fund research, that research becomes “private research” once a publisher “adds value” to it by managing the peer review.”

    [Comment: Researchers do the peer review for the publisher for free, just as researchers give their papers to the publisher for free, together with the exclusive right to sell subscriptions to it, on-paper and online, seeking and receiving no fee or royalty in return].

    “Since that public research has thereby been transformed into “private research,” and the publisher’s property, the government that funded it with public tax money should not be allowed to require the funded author to make it accessible for free online for those users who cannot afford subscription access.”

    [Comment: The author's sole purpose in doing and publishing the research, without seeking any fee or royalties, is so that all potential users can access, use and build upon it, in further research and applications, to the benefit of the public that funded it; this is also the sole purpose for which public tax money is used to fund research.]”

    H.R. 3699 misunderstands the secondary, service role that peer-reviewed research journal publishing plays in US research and development and its (public) funding….

    Link to this
  11. 11. slayerwulfe 9:19 am 01/8/2012

    I have not read any comments to avoid being influenced. Government our legal system and also our military are funded by taxpayer money does that alone give me the right to have access to all information. I believe all of us are able to see the problems that could cause. I am very novice in all of this that I wonder if SOPA or the lack of it is influential to this new proposal. It may be that retaining this information for the monetary benefits of the population(as a country)that funded it is a higher priority than divulging it.

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  12. 12. slayerwulfe 9:45 am 01/8/2012

    I have read all the comments. A research entities reward may depend on publishing but that is not compensation. Compensation is either employment or a grant for further research. Only those that are able to assist do have a valid argument for exclusivity. As a student I have a desire to know but the small amount that I may have paid as an individual is hardly justification to achieve my desire. I am denied many times because I am unable to provide the funds necessary to acquire published material, that I can only view it as in internal problem on an individual basis.

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  13. 13. johnwerneken 8:48 pm 01/9/2012

    Let’s take it at a more basic level. There is NO SUCH THING AS INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. Get used to it. Certainly all property exists only by state sanction, but tangible property exists as something that may be possessed exclusively regrdless of whether there is any law to say who has the so-called right to do so; so law arises to reduce violence over such issues. There is no such excuse for laws about so-called ‘intellectual property’. It simply does not xist.

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  14. 14. johnwerneken 8:54 pm 01/9/2012

    idiot. of course there are reasons why we do what we do. the only problem with the various explanations is not that they may be false or incomplete, but that they become exuses. get real.

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  15. 15. johnwerneken 8:55 pm 01/9/2012

    oh dear cross posted a non sequiter sorry

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  16. 16. MistyTheMagnificent 12:25 pm 01/10/2012

    This bill absolutely infuriates me to the point that my heart started beating fast as I read it. It is a slap in the face to science that journals hold a monolpoly over scientific information in the first place. There is a sense of elitism in the practice that they guard access to scientific publications unless you are either paying thousands of dollars of tuition to an approved higher ed facility or can afford the hundreds of dollars it takes to have a subscription to the journal databases. Many universities in my area have even closed public access to their databases, unless you are a ‘paying customer’ aka student. And now, even research that the public paid for, they want us to pay for it again! I’m reminded of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages when the ‘word of God’ via masses were spoken in Latin because it was believed that the ignorant masses couldn’t handle the information themselves and had to rely on the clergy to decipher it for them when the clergy saw fit. Apparently the scientific journals are God and the media is the clergy.

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  17. 17. AAPCommunications 12:49 pm 01/11/2012

    AAP has posted information as to why it supports RWA.

    Link to this
  18. 18. BossyG 2:37 pm 01/13/2012

    Another issue is that scientists may not even have access to many of these articles. As budgets have shrunk subscription fee’s have risen and many universities have decreased their collections. This makes it difficult for scientists at these institutions to get the articles, often requiring inter-library loans and thus days or weeks to keep up with the field.

    Link to this

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