The Research Works Act: An inexcusable assault on open access and on science

General Public

The research world has been up in arms recently, following the introduction of a bill to the US Congress that would restrict public access to the results of governmentally funded studies.  The Research Works Act (RWA) is not the first of its kind to be proposed, but the threat to the dissemination of knowledge is so real that scientists are not taking it lightly.  MyScienceWork joins them in opposing this harmful, regressive move, and offers this look at recent debate surrounding the RWA.

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A great amount of funding for scientific research in the United States comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Under the 2008 NIH Public Access Policy, any researcher receiving such funding is required to submit the resulting article to the open access database PubMed Central, to be made available to the public no later than 12 months after publication.

In December, Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) sponsored the Research Works Act (HR 3699), designed to end the obligation for federally funded researchers to make their work publicly accessible, and also to prohibit the government from maintaining any open access databases of research articles, without the consent of the publisher.  The bill is currently in committee, the first step of the legislative process.

The general reaction among scientists expressing themselves on the internet seems to be an incredulous “Are you kidding me?!”  After the huge amount of work on the part of researchers that goes into producing a study, after all the funding that has been provided by tax payer money, after the peer review offered by specialists, generally free of charge, the publishing industry is trying to claim that they add such enormous value to the articles they publish that these become their intellectual product, permanently.  Seriously?

In a statement on the AAP website, publishers insist that they make significant investments in “the production, peer review and publication of…scholarly journal articles.”  Indeed, they do provide editorial services, including the coordination of the peer review process, but scientists hasten to point out that they voluntarily carry out the all-important review of their peers' work.  Recently, however, Scott Aaronson, a quantum computing researcher at MIT, has refused to act as a peer reviewer, or even to submit articles to private publishers’ journals. “I got tired of giving free labor to these very rich for-profit companies,” he told the New York Times.  In response to the controversy surrounding the Research Works Act, others may follow.

There seems to be a major disconnect between the research and publishing worlds as to who is the real producer of a scientific article. The AAP opposes “free public dissemination of journal articles that report on research which, to some degree, has been federally-funded but is produced and published by private sector publishers”.  Wait, who produces the research?  Not the scientists?  Using taxpayer money?  When the publishers step in at the end of the process to publish the final manuscript, is this really sufficient to say they now own the intellectual product?

Still, publishers play a very real role, and have the right to a return on their investment.  In the view of Kevin Zelnio, marine biologist by training and Scientific American blogger,


"The NIH mandate does nothing to 'disregard' private-sector’s added value. It was a major concession to private industry to allow open access after one year, recognizing that it does add value… During the first year of a publication’s life is when access requests would be strongest anyways."


This policy is hardly a threat to publishers, explains Lisa Federer, a UCLA medical librarian.  “There is little danger of publishers losing subscriptions…because people aren’t going to sit around and wait a year to read something."  Scientists need fresh news now, so institutions are obliged to pay the enormous subscription fees charged by journal publishers (stopping short of accepting a 400% increase, as the University of California system was threatened with in 2010 by the Nature Publishing Group.)  Even several years after the implementation of the NIH policy on public access, academic publishers do seem to be doing a-ok:  as The Economist reported, in 2010 "Elsevier, the biggest publisher of journals with almost 2,000 titles, cruised through the recession. Last year it made £724m ($1.1 billion) on revenues of £2 billion—an operating-profit margin of 36%."

The AAP states that the Research Works Act is necessary to ensure the sustainability of its industry, which employs more than 30,000 workers.  At the same time, in response to a post by UC Berkeley researcher and open access advocate Michael Eisen, Elsevier executive Tom Reller maintains that his industry is thriving.  Then, responding to objections from Harvard researcher Alex Kentsis (in words eerily similar to Reller's earlier comments), bill co-sponsor Rep. Maloney again plays the jobs card, saying the RWA is necessary to protect the employment of thousands of New Yorkers working in the publishing industry.  As Eisen had already pointed out, any claim that this act saves jobs is uninformed and shortsighted:


“…impeding the free flow of scientific and medical knowledge poses a far greater threat to American jobs and competitiveness than does protecting the narrow interests of a dying industry.”


The publishing industry seems to be grasping at straws in order to tighten its hold on the role it plays in the system.  Is this just a grab at higher profits?  Or maybe they sense that change is in the air.  The Public Library of Science (PLOS), an open access publisher that makes all of its articles immediately available to the public online, has proven that this business model works.  Open access publishing has become a truly viable option for the future.  Journal publishers may recognize that their field is evolving, but the solution will surely be to evolve with it, not to clamp down on the accessibility of information – a real blow to scientific advancement and the democratization of knowledge.

  Similar articles on MyScienceWork:

Open Access: Towards a New Practice of Scientific Communication

Scientific publication: the model and scandals

Find out more:

Research Bought, Then Paid For, Op-Ed piece by Michael Eisen

Review of The Access Principle by John Willinsky, Scott Aaronson’s take on the publishing industry and open access.

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