The US Research Works Act would allow publishers to line their pockets by locking publicly funded research behind paywalls
This is the moment academic publishers gave up all pretence of being on the side of scientists. Their rhetoric has traditionally been of partnering with scientists, but the truth is that for some time now scientific publishers have been anti-science and anti-publication. The Research Works Act, introduced in the US Congress on 16 December, amounts to a declaration of war by the publishers.
The USA’s main funding agency for health-related research is the National Institutes of Health, with a $30bn annual budget. The NIH has a public access policy that says taxpayer-funded research must be freely accessible online. This means that members of the public, having paid once to have the research done, don’t have to pay for it again when they read it – a wholly reasonable policy, and one with enormous humanitarian implications because it means the results of medical research are made freely available around the world.
A similar policy is now being adopted in the UK. On page 76 of the policy document Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth the government states that it is “committed to ensuring that publicly funded research should be accessible free of charge”. All of this is great for the progress of science, which has always been based on the free flow of ideas, the sharing of data, and standing on the shoulders of giants.
But what’s good for science isn’t necessarily good for science publishers, whose interests have drifted far out of alignment with ours. Under the old model, publishers become the owners of the papers they publish, holding the copyright and selling copies around the world – a useful service in pre-internet days. But now that it’s a trivial undertaking to make a paper globally available, there is no reason why scientists need yield copyright to publishers.
The contribution that publishers make – coordinating editors, formatting, and posting on websites – is now a service that authors can pay for, rather than a bargaining chip that could be worth yielding copyright for. So authors making their work available as open access pay publishers a fee to do so, and the publisher does not own the resulting work.
Open-access publishers such as the Public Library of Science are able to make a modest profit on a publication fee of $1,350 (£880). But traditional publishers have become used to making much more than this, and so resist the inevitable conversion to open access. Early in the process, they did this by pouring scorn on PLoS, predicting that it would never take off. But now that PLoS ONE is the world’s largest academic journal, that attack can hardly be maintained. Instead, publishers have turned to the approach that uncompetitive corporations have always used in America: lobbying for legislation to protect their unsustainable model.
If passed, the Research Works Act (RWA) would prohibit the NIH’s public access policy and anything similar enacted by other federal agencies, locking publicly funded research behind paywalls. The result would be an ethical disaster: preventable deaths in developing countries, and an incalculable loss for science in the USA and worldwide. The only winners would be publishing corporations such as Elsevier (£724m profits on revenues of £2b in 2010 – an astounding 36% of revenue taken as profit).