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Mistruths, Insults from the Copyright Lobby Over HR 3699


As you know from my last post, I am staunch proponent of open access to scientific information, especially the variety that I paid for by virtue of taxation. The Research Works Act (HR3699) being proposed now will lock away taxpayer funded research from the hands of those whose hard-earned wages funded the research. It's really a no-brainer and the NIH compromise was generous, allowing publishers to make a profit from research works for a whole year, during the crucial access time for new articles. The AAP argument that they add value by administering peer-review is disingenuous at best, but insulting to the scientists that voluntarily staff their peer reviewer army. Researchers freely add-value to for-profit institutions through providing all peer-review services and assigning copyright to publishers. As Heather Morrison writes in her thorough dissertation on scholarly communication: "Giving exclusive copyright to any one party is arguably a disservice to all of the other parties who contributed to the research, or for whom it was conducted." Additionally, threats of job losses due to the NIH policy on open access are fear-mongering and taxpaying Americans should not have to bear the burden for their failure to innovate an outdated and inefficient mode of research communication.

Of course, scientists are as much to blame. We buy into this crappy system, convince ourselves it works and refuse to consider alternative models cause such out-of-the-box thinking, while occasionally praised among scientists, is not rewarded by the system of tenure and promotion in academia. The paper becomes the final product, a measurable unit whose value is not in the contents it holds and the progress it promises, but whose value is characterized by unscientific traits such as the title of the journal that contains it and a useless metric with artificial flavoring that has a value in and of itself that is wholly irreproducible. The paper is NOT the final product. Science doesn't end at publication, it continues.

As H.R. 3699 was clearly a bill written to increase the profits of the publishing industry, it came as no surprise to me to find the Copyright Alliance's glowing support cross my eyeballs tonight. It goes a little further than the vaporous AAP release in supporting the Research Works Act and denigrates scientific integrity, insults the government and taxpayers, and wades knee-high into irrelevant points. Below is their text with my comments in bold:

“The Copyright Alliance praises U.S. Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) for their bipartisan introduction of H.R. 3699, the Research Works Act. The proposal would overturn an unprecedented federal government taking of copyrights from certain authors and researchers."

WRONG. Authors and researchers voluntarily give up their profits as required by most for-profit publishers once a paper is accepted for publication. The government is not taking away copyrights, the publishers make scientists sign it over. Many open access publications, though, allow authors to retain copyright and utilize Creative Commons licensing.

“Providing a federal grant to fund a research project should not enable the federal government to commandeer and freely distribute a subsequently published private sector peer-reviewed article. But a 2008 mandate at the National Institutes of Health requires just that – disregarding the significant value added by the private-sector publisher whose activities are not funded by the government."

WRONG. Funding agencies have every right to impose restrictions on their funds. It's their money, their rules. In fact, I can't recall ever signing a contract that DIDN'T have some conditions on it. Using language like "commandeer" and "freely distribute" is misleading. What if the money were from a private foundation instead of the government? On the other hand, publishing companies are free to disagree with the policy and not publish government funded research because of this requirement. It is also free to charge higher fees to offset this. That is their decision as profit-driven vehicles. But it does not have a right to tell the funder how recipients should spend their money. From the moment a researcher gets a grant accepted up to the moment they send off a manuscript  for review, publishers have nothing to do with a funder's money.

Additionally, the NIH mandate does nothing to "disregard" private-sector's added value. It was a major concession to private industry to allow open access after one year, recognizing that it does add value by administrating, editing, printing and distributing the work, in addition to managing the peer review process. During the first year of a publication's life is when access requests would be strongest anyways. In fact, during the few years that the NIH policy has been in place, profits of at least one major academic publisher haven't changed in at least decade from 30-40% operating profit margin.

"This is counterproductive for several reasons: it is not fair to other investors in the research, if there are any;"

Irrelevant. As I mentioned above, each funder has every right to put conditions on their money. Receiving money is a privilege won by submitting proposals, and if there are multiple funding sources for a research work with conflicting requirements it is between the researcher and funder to work out - not the publisher. This is creating a problem that doesn't exist.

"it arbitrarily limits the value of the copyright in the article for the author and publisher, and harms the publisher’s investments in ensuring a quality publication; and, it results in reduced incentives for both these groups to publish peer-reviewed articles explaining the nature and results of government-funded research in a manner that ultimately harms society when the investment in publication dries up due to lack of ability to recover their costs.

Misleading. Author's copyright is often irrelevant cause it is typically signed over to the publisher. But, yes publisher's investments are harmed because they can no longer continue earning a profit after 12 months. Yet, they can still charge for access to the article at their own website. They are merely required to deposit a copy of the research work in a public repository, like PubMedCentral.

The quality of the publication lies in the content of the article not the processing, editing, and distribution. I do not include peer review because it is done for free by other researchers. The quality of peer review varies no matter how "prestigious" you think your publication is. This is shown time and again through the process of retraction. I fail to see how there will ever be "reduced incentives" for publishing peer-reviewed literature. It is a process borne out of the scientific method, not the publishing industry. It will exist in some form regardless of publishing company-written legislation, as shown by the immense popularity of the PLoS One journal's method of pre-publication peer review for technical accuracy and post-publication peer review for impact, technicalities or anything else for that matter.

Finally, the ultimate irony of the last sentence is that the Copyright Alliance fails to understand what "ultimately harms society" is lack of access to the research works themselves! That last statement shows how little they actually are aware of emerging internet technologies. Let's say worst case scenario is that there is NO MORE MONEY EVER for publishing research results. Its Armageddon for the publishing industry and they all folded because of overblown government restrictions on their 30+% profit margins. What is preventing researchers from posting their results to publicly available online repositories like say... their personal webpages, or arxiv, or PLoS (which conveniently offers full or partial fee wavers if you do not have funds to cover publishing costs while managing to be profitable after only seven years)? The message is not the medium, folks.

This is just typical copyright lobby and publishing industry fear-mongering. So long as people buy into the Impact Factor scam they will always have business, but they aren't satisfied there. They've watched PLoS and BMC grow and know how popular and successful they've become. They know the way of the future is open access so they are now trying at every turn to force the government's legislative hand to skew the rules so that they can continues embezzling government funds through the guise of research works publication.

“This reversal of centuries of copyright law occurred without input from the affected communities, and without benefit of oversight by congressional committees with expertise and responsibility for copyright laws and enforcement.

This bipartisan bill ensures that privately-funded research works that describe or interpret federal research and are intended for public publishing will receive that treatment, and preserves the rights of research funders and publishers.”

Copyright law is not reversed! Copyright law remains as it ever has. If for-profit publishers' do not like the demands placed by government funders, which are enacted in the interest of its constituents, they are free to jack up the costs or refuse government funded research works. Then they can sit back and see if the market forces like this or not and we will finally see how researchers value artificial prestige over broad, efficient dissemination. Like any industry, innovate or die.

Another ill-conceived press release in support of this damaging piece of legislation filled with misleading statements and half-truths designed to provide talking points and ammo to sympathetic congress members who have their pockets lined by publishing company lobbyists. Let's not let them embezzle our payroll wages under the guise of providing artificial services that can by provided by other, more forward-thinking institutions who believe in providing taxpayer access to their paid-for deliverables and lack such revolting disdain for our government acting in its citizens' interests. Follow up with the chatter on Research Works Act HR 36999 over at John Dupuis' blog, who has archived all the reports, news and opinion concerning this issue and write your congressman and implore them to support their constituents' access to material they have rightfully paid for.

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

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