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New Bill Would Put Taxpayer-Funded Science Behind Pay Walls

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Posted on Jan 12, 2012
IITA Image Library (CC-BY)

By Lena Groeger, ProPublica

This report originally appeared at ProPublica.

Right now, if you want to read the published results of the biomedical research that your own tax dollars paid for, all you have to do is visit the digital archive of the National Institutes of Health. There you’ll find thousands of articles on the latest discoveries in medicine and disease, all free of charge.

A new bill in Congress wants to make you pay for that, thank you very much. The Research Works Act would prohibit the NIH from requiring scientists to submit their articles to the online database. Taxpayers would have to shell out $15 to $35 to get behind a publisher’s paid site to read the full research results. A Scientific American blog said it amounts to paying twice.

Two members of Congress — Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. — introduced the bill. Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic finds it curious that Issa, a well-known champion of the open Internet whose own website displays the words “keep the web #OPEN,” would back a bill that appears to be the polar opposite of open access.

As Michael Eisen, a University of California, Berkeley, biologist and open access supporter, notes, Maloney’s support seems no less mystifying since she represents “a liberal Democratic district in New York City that is home to many research institutions.”

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Both Issa and Maloney have received campaign contributions from the Dutch company Elsevier, which calls itself the world’s leading publisher of scientific and medical information. According to MapLight, a website that tracks political cash, Elsevier and its senior executives last year made 31 contributions to House members totaling $29,500. Twelve contributions totaling $8,500 went to Maloney; Issa received two for a total of $2,000.

This isn’t the first effort by publishers to push Congress to roll back the NIH’s public access policy, which was enacted in 2008 and applauded by doctors, patients, librarians, teachers and students. Under the policy, all research funded by the NIH was required to be made freely available to the public one year after publication on PubMed Central. (The NIH also runs PubMed, a biomedical research database that includes articles that aren’t federally funded and cost money to access.)

In 2009, as Eisen notes, the Association of American Publishers backed the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act. That bill never left committee, but this new bill is essentially a shorter version of the same thing (and was similarly praised by the AAP for forbidding “federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles”).

Two arguments in favor of the bill crop up regularly:

1. Publishers like Elsevier add value to every scientific journal article by overseeing the peer-review, editing and publishing process. Because of this contribution, they deserve exclusive rights to each article permanently, not merely one year after it has been published. Tom Reller, vice president for global corporate relations at Elsevier, comments here that Elsevier and other commercial and nonprofit publishers invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in managing the publication of journal articles.”

2. Publishing companies need this money to keep the industry going. As the AAP states: “At a time when job retention, U.S. exports, scholarly excellence, scientific integrity and digital copyright protection are all priorities, the Research Works Act ensures the sustainability of this industry.”

In the recent commotion over the bill (here’s a roundup of recent posts), the academic community has replied to both of these claims.

In response to the added value argument, Kevin Smith, scholarly communications officer at Duke University, argues that publishers don’t actually produce or add much themselves. The work comes from academics and from the peer reviewers who volunteer their time to read and critique the work of their fellow academics. According to Eisen, although publishers might contribute a little something to the peer-review process (organization, supervision, etc.), this pales in comparison to the work done for free.

In response to the jobs and industry argument, Heather Morrison, a doctoral candidate at the Simon Fraser University School of Communication in Vancouver, B.C., points out that the top scientific, technical and medical publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Informa) have seen profit margins of 30 percent to 35 percent in the last year. Elsevier, part of a global multibillion-dollar information conglomerate with offices in New York City, publishes about 1,800 journals and last year made a profit of $1.1 billion.


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Eric L. Prentis's avatar

By Eric L. Prentis, January 14, 2012 at 8:25 am Link to this comment

“Elsevier and its senior executives last year made 31 contributions to House members totaling $29,500. Twelve contributions totaling $8,500 went to Maloney; Issa received two for a total of $2,000.”

Congress-people are cheap whores. For $8,500 and $2,000 dollars, they gladly screw Americas.

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By "G"utless "W"itless Hitler, January 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm Link to this comment

Are you people completely ignorant of history?  The
prisoners must pay for their own maintenance.  This is
merely the company store policy writ scholarly.

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adc14's avatar

By adc14, January 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm Link to this comment

Elsevier publishes some of the most expensive journals on the planet. The “added value” includes mostly expensive glossy paper and corporate greed. You should check their subscription prices. They are astronomical.

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By Doubtom, January 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm Link to this comment

Why does that scumbag Issa need contributions from anyone?  He’s a damn
millionaire for chrissakes!  Use your own money you miserable dirtbag! 
Millionaires do not represent the people!!! Only fools think they do.

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agelbert's avatar

By agelbert, January 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm Link to this comment

NASA has been doing this practically since its inception. Who paid for all those nice pictures of the earth and other bodies in space? We did. I remember when I bought a poster of an earth from space picture at Cape Kennedy in Florida in 1988 NASA for $8 (there is no way the poster paper and printing the picture on it cost NASA more than 50 cents!).  Since the internet made downloading available, things have improved somewhat but they STILL want to charge you for some types of photos. That’s wrong.

And as to government research which has any practical or economic value, isn’t it AMAZING that those “self made entrepreneurs”, those “free market” lovers and disdainers of all “socialist giveaways”  ALWAYS can, with sufficient digging into their past, be found to have gotten a hold of a patent or a process developed with tax payer dollars. It’s been an ongoing scam for over 100 YEARS!

Do you know how this works? An industrialist has an idea but doesn’t have the capital to find out if it will work or how to make it work. He is well connected because he comes from a rich family. He gets the U.S. government to fund the research through his friendly senator or congressperson and the very same crooked representative makes sure the patent (after millions or billions of your dollars are spent) gets “offloaded” to “private enterprise” (for a song) as a “government efficiency measure”.

The USA is a place where the capital for capitalism mostly comes from socialising the cost of research to the people. And that was BEFORE the financial nightmare got going where socialising losses got into the act.

Issa should be in jail with all the other crooks from congress.

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they call me the working man's avatar

By they call me the working man, January 12, 2012 at 9:22 pm Link to this comment

“A Scientific American blog said it amounts to paying twice”

Scientific American runs climate denier articles.

There are plenty of good sources of scientific info for the layman. There aren’t really any secrets being kept except somewhat in regards to military. There was a discussion recently about whether info about a highly contagious form of bird flu that was developed in a lab should be available. Lets not go all tinfoil hat, please.

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Blueokie's avatar

By Blueokie, January 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm Link to this comment

Formerly the Government financed a great deal of research, mostly in public universities, the results were publicly known and were used commonly and privately.  This was when wealth was taxed, yet wealth’s benefit was great.

As wealth was more upwardly concentrated and “freed” from the burden of taxation, wealth made donations to (bought) universities and were rewarded with complete control of results, or the results that were desired.  Publicly funded research can easily be cut, as the private sector does everything more efficiently in results and costs, along with unnecessary public expenditures like education, arts, health care, etc. etc. 

In a consumer driven economic system, based upon the concept that everything imaginable is a commodity and its price is in the control of speculators, this can’t be a surprise.

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By Watchpocket, January 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Someone else trying to make millions from others work products. Issa is a rightwing grubber and we all know it.  Rep Maloney must have been bitten by the reelection bug.

Our founders did not perceive professional representatives that spend most of their time raising money for their reelection. Vote the bums out and GET MONEY OUT.

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By gerard, January 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment

How reasonab;e scientists can make a reasonable case for withholding information gained from research from immediate, free and open release to the public is weird! WikiLeaks to the rescue!
Free Bradley Manning and Julian Assange!

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By felicity, January 12, 2012 at 11:48 am Link to this comment

There seems to be some sort of jihad to keep the public
in the dark on all, or any, issue which the public
should know about and which the paying public has a
right to know about.

A ‘secret’ government will result in the rule of law
being replaced by the rule of men - which will result
in tyranny.

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