October 24, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The Research Works Act Would Be An Epic Fail

the wallThere is a bill being considered here in the U.S. called the “Research Works Act”.

This is without a doubt one of the dumbest bills I have ever heard of in my life. 

The bill is bad for science and bad for America. If passed it would be an epic fail for America.

Why?

This bill would serve as an unnecessary wall between scientists and between scientists and the rest of America. The sole purpose of this bill is to protect the profits of traditional for-profit scientific publishers by reversing open access policies for publication of scientific works.

In other words, the bill would block Americans’ access to the papers describing the scientific work that the taxpayers paid for in order to give publishers a free pass for millions of dollars.

Of course not surprisingly most publishers love this bill, but scientist do not and there’s a good, common sense reason. Scientists want their work available to each other and to the largest possible audience overall, but publishers only have one main goal: to make money. Publishers such as Elsevier support the Research Works Act because it basically keeps their near monopoly on publishing. In response, many scientists are boycotting Elsevier, refusing to publish in Elsevier’s journals or review articles for them. Note that at the moment, I am not part of that boycott.

Why is this all happening and what does it mean?

Let’s start with two facts that everyone agrees upon:

The government funds most scientific research both in the U.S. and around the world.

Most of this federally-funded research today is published in for-profit journals that can only be accessed if one is willing to pay money.

One unavoidable conclusion of these two factual statements together is that access to the results of publicly funded research is blocked from reaching its maximal audience and hence having its greatest impact. For example, most taxpayers, who are the ones paying for NIH and NSF funded research for example, do not have expensive personal subscriptions to medical journals and hence are blocked from accessing the research for which they paid with their taxes. That’s bad. We are not talking about pennies here either. A single article can cost up to $35 or more and institutional subscriptions cost in the thousands of US dollars.

So in a sense, for-profit publishers represent a wall between tax payer-funded research and the audience that wants to read about the results of such research.

Logically the government should push to make tax payer-funded research publications as available to Americans as possible, right? Yes, and the federal government has been actively heading in that direction for a number of years.

The Research Works Act would literally turn back the pages to a worse situation. It would reverse the good things that the open access trend has accomplishedand make it much harder for Americans to get access to the research information. It also would put up barriers to scientists connecting with each other, scientists who might happen to be at institutions that cannot afford massively expensive subscriptions to certain journals. The Act is bad for everyone except for publishers.

So, you might be asking yourself if publishers are middlemen in effect that earn millions of dollars of money off of tax payer-funded research “what is it exactly that for-profit publishers contribute to the process?”

Hmmm…anyone know? Frankly, I’m not sure, but I’ve heard two arguments.

First, a non-scientific argument postulated in their favor is economic–make publishers richer and they’ll employ more people, but I’m not sure this represents reality.

Second, a science-related argument is that for-profit journals provide a unique and valuable service simply by publishing scientific research. However, in this day and age of electronic communications that is not such a strong argument as it might been when we were all reading paper journals and there was no alternative. Weakening this argument further is the fact that open access journals do a great job publishing and make all their publications open for anyone to read.

The bottom line. Americans pay for research funding with their taxes so therefore private publishers should not control and even block access to the results of that research simply for the purpose of turning a profit. The Research Works Act supports this unhealthy system and for that reason is bad for science and bad for America.

I recommend opposing this act.

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