Open Access Battles Return

Primaries, presidential candidates, really icy roads, oh my! There’s just so freakin’ much to keep track of this week that you may have missed the fact that the scientific community is absolutely up in arms this week. Outraged, I think, is the best word for it.

The issue at hand: the freedom of scientific research to be freely accessed and read by the general public — or, if you’re looking it at it from the stance of the Association of American Publishers, the right to protect their intellectual property.

The source of everybody’s ire stems from the Research Works Act, a bill currently making the legislative rounds around the House, and the crucial piece of text that has everybody’s attention is as follows:

No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that —

(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or

(2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

Right now, thanks to the NIH, publicly funded studies — which make up a significant portion of general research — are required to be made free and open to the public within a year of their publication date, a nice nod toward the taxpayer, given that they’re the ones who essentially paid for it. While you can imagine publishers wouldn’t be super thrilled about it, the freedom of this information is crucial for spreading and fostering scientific thought and education. (For an excellent breakdown of why the average man on the street can’t just make do buying one-offs, read this).

If my politicalese is correct, what the quoted text represents is big, fat, bureaucratic cork jammed into that flow of information. It would also be a tremendous coup for the publishers; as the Association of American Publishers says:

The Research Works Act will prohibit federal agencies from unauthorized 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 receiving no such funding. It would also prevent non-government authors from being required to agree to such free distribution of these works. Additionally, it would preempt federal agencies’ planned funding, development and back-office administration of their own electronic repositories for such works, which would duplicate existing copyright-protected systems and unfairly compete with established university, society and commercial publishers.

Ironically, as almost every vehement opponent of the act is pointing out, the Bill is sponsored by Darrell Issa, a guy who once championed freedom of information and rallied against the anti-piracy act.

The scientific community meanwhile, has absolutely risen up in arms in a united front against it — it’s actually incredible to see it, a united front standing in defense of its own products and research that has brought with it some outstanding coverage of the issue. Read through some of it and get a sense for what’s going on, because, look: if you’re interested in science, education, or the freedom of information, this matters to you.