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.


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.


  1. As a scientist taxpayer, I also think about the fact that the government pays for the research, for publishing the results of this research (page fees, etc.) and for disseminating the results because indirect costs of grants help the institutions purchase subscriptions to the journals. In fact most institutions cannot afford subscriptions to all journals, so have to order them for us from other institutions that do have a subscription. This is further cost. That is before we ever consider the “public”. Of course, most of the public has not interest and their scientific education from the schools is so miserable that they can’t understand what we have written for our peers. On the other hand, it they can’t access it, how can they ever learn?

  2. The sponser of this bill, Congressman Darrell Issa, is the definition of epic fail. He’s been in Congress 11 years and has yet to pass even one of his bills. This particular bill had 1 co-sponsor that has since withdrawn. He has co-sponsored 131 bills of which only 6 made it in to law. Over 11 years? Really?

    Maybe this article from the the New Yorker can shine some light on that and his drunken staff that he employs.

    However it is important that Paul wrote about this issue in the greater scheme of things. If I may comment from the non-profit side of the table, I agree. This is a horrible bill that will do nothing to expand knowledge or share research. It will only serve private profiteering at the expense of the federal tax payer dollar. It is difficult enough for non-profits to avoid the land mines of no-compete duplicity failures, without having a major road block to available due diligence efforts prior to funding research. This is greed at it’s most base and diabolical level. The good news, it comes from Rep Darrell Issa.

  3. “This bill would serve as an unnecessary wall between scientists and between scientists and the rest of America.”

    I wonder who really benefits. It seems to hurt the spread of new ideas(innovation).
    Innovation hurts the status quo. I find it hard to believe the drug industry, being as powerful as they are, would allow this to get through congress, unless???. They are the # 2 biggest spenders of lobbying groups. See 1 minute mark.
    Ex-Lobbyist Jack Abramoff on Wash DC Corruption

    Stop playing checkers when powerful groups play chess.

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