Research Works Act threatens public access to literature

See below for an important update to this posting.

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives in December 2011 could have enormous consequences for scientific and medical researchers if passed. Cited as the Research Works Act (RWA) (H.R. 3699), this legislation would prohibit any federal agency from engaging in any activity that :

  1. results in the dissemination of published articles without the prior consent of the publisher of the work; or
  2. requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such author, assent to dissemination of a published research work.

Essentially, RWA would nullify the NIH Public Access Policy, which requires that the public has access to the published results of NIH funded research within 12 months of publication. This policy was implemented in 2008, and it was a significant move to ensure U.S. citizens’ right to read published results of research funded through taxpayer dollars, free of charge. Since so much of the research funding at UCSF comes from the NIH, our researchers are very familiar with this policy and making sure (sometimes painstakingly) that their articles get deposited in PubMed Central.

Though several publications were already making all articles freely accessible 12 or fewer months after initial publication, many publishers opposed the NIH Policy since it makes some of their published content free that would otherwise only be accessible through a subscription or other paid access.  In 2008 and 2009 publishing interests got the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” introduced into Congress; it died both times in committee.

Two years later, the publisher-backed RWA is back, demonstrating that some publishers are willing to keep fighting the NIH Policy and prevent other government agencies from implementing something similar. Who is behind RWA? The Association of American Publishers (AAP) is the primary backer, though not all of AAP’s members support RWA. MIT Press, AAAS, Nature, and BioMed Central are among the publishers opposing RWA.  One of AAP’s members – Elsevier Science – is receiving most of the blame for getting this bill introduced by Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, and Darrell Issa, a Republican from California. So much so that more than 4,500 researchers have signed a petition vowing to boycott Elsevier publications.

Whether or not it’s fair to single out Elsevier as the bad guy, it’s clear that scholars around the world are beginning to take a different stance on their role in the scholarly publishing cycle. Scientists are behind many of the innovations in publishing and online communications tools such as the Public Library of Science, arXiv, and ResearchGate.

As of January 11, the RWA bill has been referred to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and may or may not make it to the House floor for a vote.

Update, March 18, 2012: On February 27, Representatives Issa and Maloney issued a statement announcing that they would not be taking legislative action on RWA/H.R. 3699. The same day, the publisher Elsevier withdrew its support for RWA, clearing any doubt about the connection between the powerful publisher and the introduction of this bill into Congress. While Elsevier states it still opposes a government mandate to require public access to published articles, it is clear that the enormous amount of bad publicity the company received as a result of their initial support for RWA influenced its decision to pull back that support.

In their statement, Issa and Maloney change course, acknowledging the transformation occurring in the scholarly publishing industry:

As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future. The transition must be collaborative, and must respect copyright law and the principles of open access. The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid. This conversation needs to continue and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate.

Indeed, the conversation will continue. The FRPAA bill (H.R. 4004) to mandate public access to federally funded research is in committee. It is likely that any policy changes will only be set forth once the White House’s Office of Science & Technology Policy takes action following review of comments regarding “long-term preservation of, and public access to, the results of federally funded research”.

Want to get involved? Here are some steps:

  1. If you are a member of a society, check your society’s position on public access to grant-funded research results, and start a dialog with the society decision-makers and other members.
  2. Visit the Legislative Action Center on the Alliance for Taxpayer Access’ site.
  3. Write a letter of opinion to a newspaper.
  4. Leave a comment to let us know what you think about these issues.

About Anneliese

Assistant Director for Scholarly Communications & Collections
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