2 March 2012
This week, congress officially shelved the 'Research Works Act’. This bill was proposed late last year and its main point was banning federal agencies from mandating that federally funded research be made publicly available. This bill stands in direct opposition to the recent trend of open access publications and prior mandates from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that all research funded by them be made freely available to the public. From the taxpayers’ perspective, it is logical that federally funded research should be made publicly available to those that helped to fund it. Imagine a different scenario where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paid 100 million dollars to produce 'Contagion’, gave it away to Warner Bros, and allowed them to charge $12 a ticket for viewers to go see the film in theaters. It is a ludicrous proposition, and precisely what the NIH mandate tries to prevent.
So why would anyone want to limit access to research? Its entirely obvious, but this is where parallels to copyright infringement, media piracy, and SOPA/PIPA emerge. One of the major headlines to come out of this relatively short debate was the 7,500 strong researcher boycott of Elsevier – a journal publishing company that initially sponsored the bill and was subsequently pressured to withdraw support, thus ending the bills hopes of proceeding. As a company which publishes scientific research at a considerable cost, it is in Elsevier’s interest to prevent their content from being distributed freely. Even as a child of the internet age that has come to expect that all of my media content be free, I can sympathize with this concern.
Creating and distributing music costs money and so too does creating and distributing research. It’s not to say that garage-band musicians who independently distribute can’t make a profit, and scientists who publish on sites like arXiv can’t readily distribute their research. But big journals, like big record labels and film studios, clearly distribute research broadly. More importantly, they also add value to the research by facilitating the peer review processes at a considerable financial cost. In the same way that musicians and film-makers have to deal with increasingly open access to their content (though it doesn’t mean many have not tried, and failed, to fight this) so too must the publication companies. Their efforts should thus be focused more on how to change their business model to adapt to this ideological shift, which journals can clearly do – other publication groups including Nature and the PLoS are doing just that and came out in opposition to this bill.
Lastly, a powerful lesson to take home from this kerfuffle is that we scientists, in our own nerdy way, are just like musicians (I like to think of myself as the Jay-Z of systems biology). We are the producers of content and we have the power to choose where we publish – and it need not always be the highest impact factor journal. When publishers do something that we disagree with, we can and should choose not to support those decisions and thus not publish with them. Their prestige is little more than a product of our collective perception of their prestige. Boycotting journals, like boycotting artists, record labels, banks, or stores whose policies we disagree with can lead to real change. This case is a perfect example of that.
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