Research Works Act

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If you care about open access to research (and you should), there are several actions (some quite time-critical) that you can take to protect it.

First, some background (if you’re already familiar with this issue and just want to know what to do about it you can skip to the “1,2,3” list at the end and read the rest later).

In 2008, legislation was passed in the United States requiring all National Institute of Health (NIH) funded researchers to submit their papers to an openly available repository within a year of publication. The (perfectly reasonable) logic was that since the American public had paid for the research with their taxes, they had a right to see it without going through paywalls. If anything, the flaws in the legislation were that it did not cover all Federally-funded research, and that it still allowed publishers to lock papers up for one year.

Of course, scientific publishers (with a “researchers do all the work, we take possession of the results and sell them back to researchers” business model that resembles nothing so much as the “the sun grows the food, the ants pick the food, the grasshoppers eat the food” motto from Pixar’s film “A Bug’s Life”) hated this and immediately tried to stop it. They were unable to do so, which is very fortunate since the open access repository, PubMed Central, was a huge boon to everyone from researchers, to physicians, to patients trying to keep up with research into their diseases.

About a year later, the US Government started a “Request For Information” (RFI) process to figure out if this policy should be expanded to other Federally-funded research. Of course, for-profit scientific publishers like Elsevier filed lengthy letters against this. One would think that non-profit professional organizations like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) would not have such a short-sighted, rent-seeking position. Surely they would put the advancement of human knowledge ahead of their revenue streams? Well, no. Perhaps not so surprising, given their previous actions.

Fast forward to January 2012, when another legislative attack on Federal open access mandates was launched – the Research Works Act. In the charming bought-and-paid for tradition of US legislation, this was written by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), a lobbying group whose members have made large contributions to the campaigns of the two U.S. Representatives introducing the bill – a fact that I am sure had no influence whatsoever on their support. This bill makes it illegal for the government to mandate open-access; it would shut down PubMed Central (sorry, cancer patients! we’ve got revenue streams to protect!)  as well as making any similar initiatives impossible. The timing of this bill was especially suspect, since it was launched a few days before the deadlines for another set of RFIs regarding open access. This odious bill launched a well-deserved internet shitstorm; our blog is relatively late to this party.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), it turns out that the ACM is a member of the AAP. One might hope that this was merely a case of the AAP doing something that some of its member organizations disagree with, but the ACM seems to like the Research Works Act just fine. You’ll like that last link; it’s one of the finest examples of disingenuous and circular reasoning I’ve seen in a while. Just to put a cherry on top of this shit sundae, it turns out that the AAP is also a supporter of SOPA (I’m now afraid to hear ACM’s own position on SOPA).

At this point, you’re most likely reading through a red veil of righteous rage. Fortunately, there are things you can do about this; some need to be done now.

  1. If you are a researcher or someone who uses research, email responses to the two RFIs from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy concerning access to Federally-funded research (one regarding peer-reviewed scholarly publications and one regarding research data). The deadline is in just three days. Although these are US government RFIs, my understanding is that you don’t have to be a US citizen or reside in the USA to respond. Harvard’s RFI response is worth reading for reference, though it is quite long.
  2. If you are a US Citizen, let your representatives know how you feel about this legislation. The Alliance for Taxpayer Access has the information you need to do so.
  3. If you are an ACM member, let the ACM know how you feel about their support for this act and the ACM’s membership of the AAP; be polite! The ACM bureaucracy is complex, but as far as I can tell the most appropriate people to contact are: Alain Chesnais, ACM President (, Bernard Rous, ACM Director of Publications ([email protected]), and Cameron Wilson, ACM Director of Public Policy ([email protected]). If you are a member of some other professional organization that belongs to AAP, contact it as well.

It’s time to let the scientific publishers know that things are going to change. From now on, the ants pick the food, the ants eat the food, and the grasshoppers leave!

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