via Huff Post:
By Michael Eisen, Assoc. Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development, UC Berkeley.
Posted March 9, 2009 | 12:56 AM (EST)
Lawrence Lessig and I have been writing about the link between publisher contributions to members of the House Judiciary Committee and their support for H.R. 801 -- a bill that would end the newly implemented NIH public access policy that makes all works published as part of NIH-funded research freely available online. On Friday, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) -- lead sponsor of the bill -- responded in a letter on Huffington Post.
The first several paragraphs of Conyers' letter contain an outline of his record as a progressive politician. But no record, no matter how distinguished, is an excuse for introducing an atrocious piece of legislation that sacrifices the public interest to those of a select group of publishing companies.
Conyers would have us believe that it is just a coincidence that his bill would erase a government policy vehemently opposed by publishers who have contributed to his campaigns. But his response to our letter -- like the bill itself -- is taken straight from the publishers' playbook.
Conyers trots out the publishers' two favorite lines of attack against the policy: 1) that the NIH policy is taking a right (in this case a copyright) away from publishers, and 2) that making taxpayer-funded research available to taxpayers will bankrupt publishers and thereby destroy science.
Both arguments are specious and reflect fundamental ignorance about how science and scientific publishing work. The accusation that the policy is bad for science because it will drive publishers out of existence is the more serious one, so I will deal with it first. Here is what Conyers wrote:
... on the narrow merits of the issue, Professor Lessig and proponents of "open access" make a credible argument that requiring open publishing of government-funded research information furthers scientific inquiry. They speak out for important values and I respect their position.
While this approach appears to further and enhance access to scientific works, opponents argue that, in reality, it reverses a long-standing and highly successful copyright policy for federally-funded work and sets a precedent that will have significant negative consequences for scientific research.
These opponents argue that scientific journals expend their own, non-federal resources to manage the peer review process, where experts review academic publications. This process is critical because it provides the quality check against incorrect, reckless, and fraudulent science and furthers the overall quality and vigor of modern scientific debate. Journal publishers organize and pay for peer review with the proceeds they receive from the sale of subscriptions to their journals, thereby adding considerable value to the original manuscripts of research scientists.
The policy Professor Lessig supports, they argue, would limit publishers' ability to charge for subscriptions since the same articles will soon be publicly available for free. If journals begin closing their doors or curtailing peer review, or foist peer review costs on academic authors (who are already pay from their limited budgets printing costs in some cases), the ultimate harm will be to open inquiry and scientific progress may be severe. And the journals most likely to be affected may be non-profit, scientific society based journals. Once again, a policy change slipped through the appropriations process in the dark of night may enhance open access to information, but it may have unintended consequences that are severe.
Far from being the reckless act Conyers portrays, the NIH policy is actually fairly conservative. It requires that papers that arise from NIH funded research be made freely available, through a website run by the National Library of Medicine, within 12 months of publication -- not immediately. This delay between publication and free public access was put in precisely because it will allow publishers to recoup, and profit from, their investment in publishing by charging for access to the freshest material.
Science moves far too fast for active researchers to afford a year's delay before reading papers in their field. Thus universities and other research institutions have to maintain subscriptions to journals even if their year-old content is freely available. Many journals, realizing that their revenue comes primarily from new material, already make their complete contents freely available online after a year or less. And these journals have not reported a wave of canceled subscriptions -- or any appreciable loss of revenue. So both empirical data and publisher actions refute Conyers' central argument against the NIH public access policy.
Conyers' argument is also clouded by several misconceptions about scientific publishing. He correctly identifies peer review as the most important role of scientific journals. But he is incorrect in his assertion that publishers make a tremendous investment of "their own, non-federal resources" in the process of peer review. While publishers supervise peer review, the process itself is carried out voluntarily by members of the research community. Scientists receive no remuneration whatsoever when they review a paper -- they do it instead because they recognize that peer review is central to the scientific process.
Since the salaries of most American scientists are paid, directly or indirectly, by the US government, the peer review process is actually a massive federal subsidy to publishers, whose very existence is based on the tens of billions of annual taxpayer dollars invested in scientific research. That even after they have had a year to profit from this taxpayer largesse some publishers are still unwilling to grant the public access to copies of papers they paid to produce and review is unconscionable.And while Representative Conyers' publishing friends may have convinced him that there are severe unintended consequences that will arise from the NIH public access policy, the scientific community -- who has been debating this issue for over a decade -- strongly disagrees. [read on...]
Mr. Conyers says I "cross the line." He says I label his motivations for introducing this bill as "corrupt," that I accuse him of "shilling," and that I "dismiss" his bill as nothing more than a "money for influence scheme." On the basis of this "one piece of legislation," he says I have waved away "forty years of fighting against special interests." He insists that he has "earned a bit more of the benefit of the doubt" and "that there is far more to the 'open access' story than [my] muckracking tale lets on." (Mike Eisen and my original posts are here and here. My blog post is here.)
First, as to substance: As others have shown without doubt, there is absolutely no "more to the 'open access' story" than my and Mike Eisen's criticism let on. (See the rebuttals especially here and here.) This bill is nothing more than a "publishers' protection act." It is an awful step backwards for science -- as 33 Nobel Prize winners, the current and former head of the NIH, the American Library Association, and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access have all said. And Mr. Conyers knows this. Practically the identical bill was introduced in the last Congress. Mr. Conyers' committee held hearings on that bill. The "open access" community rallied to demonstrate that this publishers' bill was bad for science. Even some of the cosponsors of the bill admitted the bill was flawed. Yet after that full and fair hearing on this flawed bill, like Jason in Friday the 13th, the bill returned -- unchanged, as if nothing in the hundreds of reasons for why this bill was flawed mattered to the sponsors.