Publish and perish

Phil Plait recently posted on his Bad Astronomy blog about the latest Congressional creep to try and slam their boot heel in the face of science. This time it’s Representative John Conyers (D-MI), with whom I am disgusted to share a state. Conyers is sponsoring a bill that would effectively muzzle open access and free exchange of publicly-funded scientific research in the US.  Yes, really.

I recommend reading Phil’s blog post and the embedded reference material. I won’t reproduce all that material here, but I think it’s important to recap because of the incredible threat this bill poses to the future of scientific innovation and exploration in the US.

Conyers’ bill, named with Orwellian sliminess The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (HR 801), is to fairness what W’s infamous Clear Skies Initiative was to clear skies… a deliberate lie. Conyers’ bill declares that the federal government cannot provide grant funds to support scientific research – funds that come from your federal taxes – and also ask that grantees make their results publicly and freely available. Essentially, this bill would mandate that publicly-funded scientific research in the US need not give anything back to the nation that funded it. The details are complex, apparently even for copyright lawyers, but the gist of this despicable bill leaves the public out of the loop of scientific innovation that the public paid for. And did I mention who’s supporting FCRWA? If you guessed big, rich publishing houses, you’d be correct. The Association of American Publishers desperately wants this bill to become law, and it is very important to the future of our country that they not get their way.

I publish my work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I’ve served on the governing board of a major international scientific organization in my discipline (The Geochemical Society), as editor for a major professional newsletter in my field, and on the editorial board of two international peer-reviewed journals. I’ve also worked closely with representatives of several big scientific publishers…. so I have some experience with attempts by Big Publishing to squelch interest in online, open-access journals. I’ve sat in board meetings where open-access electronic publication was discussed, where scientists like myself recognized and advocated strongly for journals moving to a cheaper, faster and more efficient all-electronic format, only to have reps from Big Pub sit there and relentlessly carp about how it couldn’t be done…. or rather, how their paymasters didn’t want it to be done.

In the old days, the only venues where scientists could publish were physical paper journals put out by big publishing houses. Paper is expensive, heavy, and must be physically shipped to readers and libraries. In the old days Big Publishing offered copy editing, printing, binding and distribution services at a premium, which only the most well-funded scientists and universities could afford. Often Big Pub would waive publication charges for poorer researchers, but not always.

Enter the internet. With the web, disseminating your research is a lot easier. Today there are lots of online peer-reviewed journals with cheap or free reading access to anyone with a web browser. Instead of a heavy (dense, kaolinite-impregnated, shining white paper), slow (publishing a paper in a print journal can take years, literally), expensive (billed to contributing authors at hundreds of dollars a page) paper journal, online publications today offer PDF files that move at the speed of light. Online journals can be produced with minimal staff and minimal cost, and can be managed by non-profit, professional scientific organizations with a direct interest in disseminating science as widely as possible. In contrast, Big Pub’s business model depends on secret articles, hefty charges, and locked access.

Big Pub isn’t all bad… many companies are actively experimenting with cheaper online publication, streamlining their businesses to fit the modern electronic world, and offering free access to older papers. But some just don’t get it, and clearly pine for the days when they could command top dollar as the only game in town. Well, sorry, but those days are over. Today it’s possible to write a paper, send it to peer-review at a respected electronic journal, and have it available to the world in a few weeks. That scares Big Pub, in a big way.

At one time, making buggy whips was big business in the US. When cars entered the scene, horse-drawn buggies vanished, but today we don’t have laws sponsored by an obsolete, irrelevant buggy-whip industry requiring people to buy a buggy whip with every new car. Today the world of gigantic science-publishing houses is as relevant to the dissemination of knowledge as buggy whips are to starting your Prius. But instead of quietly fading away, Big Pub wants to be kept on life support at public expense. Like the RIAA, Big Pub is swiftly evolving from a useful service to a parasite with delusions of relevance. They’re dying, but only because they’re too stupid and greedy to live. In the words of James T. Kirk, “let them die.”

If you care about keeping the science you paid for open, freely-available and publicly-accessible, write your Congressperson and demand they oppose HR 801.

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~ by Planetologist on March 12, 2009.

6 Responses to “Publish and perish”

  1. In case you didn’t already know, I just discovered that Science Magazine is making all research reports (and more) more than a year old available to anybody with a free registration. Maybe this will start a trend?

  2. […] Conyers’ ignorance about science In a previous post I attacked US Representative John Conyers’ bill HR 801, The Fair Copyright in Research Works […]

  3. It is not just the Big Pubs that are being served by this bill. In many cases revenue from these journals flows back to a sponsoring society. You will likely find that there are several scientific societies that (although they may not want to admit it) would want this bill passed. I was recently at a retreat for CEOs of scientific and engineering associations and there was a concern that the fall of Big Pubs would cut the jugular of many of these societies (interestingly enough this bill was not mentioned).

    P.S. If I have to be a dying Klingon, I want to be Commander Kruge. Christopher Lloyd was the best Klingon ever.

    • Very interesting. I think most of this controversy is inertial, in the sense of old models beginning to fail but their supporters refusing to acknowledge the turn of time. Old media journals were the norm for so long it’s difficult for some of their advocates to see the handwriting on the screen. Online publications – open or closed – simply cost less to produce, so naturally their subscription charges will be smaller.

      Eventually I expect it will be the norm for most scientific societies to publish their flagship journals online only, with paid institutional and individual access costing a fraction of the current going rates. Compared with gigantic printing presses, binding machines, paper by the kiloton, and shipping charges, the costs of bandwidth and server allocations are pretty small. Big publishing houses will have no place in that model, and they know it.

      On Kruge I agree… except now you’ve said that, I keep visualizing Lloyd as Kruge, in full battle armor, screaming “Great Scott! One point twenty one gigawatts!?” to his chief engineer.

      Welcome to the blog, Seth! 😀

  4. As someone who reads a lot of published science papers, and can’t afford to buy the outrageously expensive publications, this bill would really screw up my love for obscure science.

  5. Here’s what I just wrote, to my local US Rep:

    Representative Upton,

    I am writing to express my opposition to HR 801, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers. As an active research scientist at Western Michigan University, I publish regularly in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, I’ve served on the board of a leading international professional organization in my field, and I’ve worked as an editor, editorial board member, and referee with numerous major scientific journals. In my professional opinion HR 801 would do great harm to science in the US, and I urge you to oppose this bill.

    Federally-funded scientific research is paid for by our tax revenue and public access to such research is necessary to promote innovation, creativity and advancement in the academic free market of ideas. Stifling the competitive exchange of federally-funded research results is un-American and destructive to the vigorous culture of discovery such funding promotes. HR 801 does not promote fair dissemination of ideas, it stifles such by facilitating an obsolete and uncompetitive publishing industry to unfairly tilt the playing field in its direction. HR 801 directly benefits publishers while muzzling the vigorous debate of science and innovation that our public funds are designed to foster.

    I respectfully urge you to oppose HR 801, in the name of competitiveness and to maintain our nation’s great tradition of scientific leadership.

    Thank you.

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