There have been a fantastic awareness campaign online about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Wikipedia led a blackout campaignwhich was joined by a large number of famous websites and blogs. However, there is another bill that goes along with these two that is equally terrifying to me, and it wasn’t discussed nearly enough. Enter the Research Works Act (RWA).
The RWA has been discussed on Wired and Pharyngula, it has received the opposition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of the outstanding scientific journal Science. There are a few petitions online against it. Another major scientific publisher, Elsevier, has pronounced itself for the act. Before you commit to a position, sign petitions and protest, let’s have a quick look at what this act actually is.
It’s very simple to understand. Science thrives on open sharing of new ideas and experimental data. The most important way that scientists have to get their research recognized and available to other scientists are peer-reviewed journals. However, the procedure of submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed journal is expensive and lengthy. The journal charges the authors for the submission process, and then charge the people who want to gain access to the papers. They pretty much make money at every step.
Researchers in public universities usually have access to most scientific journals because their university is paying the subscription fees. Nevertheless, the research reported in the journals is done with public money and the public need to pay again to have full access to it. I personally think this is ridiculous, and peer-reviewed open-access research is the way to make research less expensive, faster, and more accessible. If there is one thing science cannot afford nowadays, it is to be hidden from the public despite being paid by the public. This would be suicidal.
A small but important step was taken a few years ago in the United States to make any publicly funded research results available within 12 months of publication in a scientific journal. The newly proposed RWA would effectively neutralize this step forward. Here is the text of the bill:
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.
Ok, so it’s just for private-sector research, or is it? (emphasis is mine)
PRIVATE-SECTOR RESEARCH WORK- The term `private-sector research work’ means an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government (as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States Code),
describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a Federal agency
and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing. Such term does not include progress reports or raw data outputs routinely required to be created for and submitted directly to a funding agency in the course of research.
Well we notice first that someone who writes like this should learn to write unambiguously and clearly. Then, we notice that this definition includes pretty much all research. I cannot think of that much research that is being done directly by the US government (NASA maybe?), as opposed to being funded by a Federal agency (NSF). The bill essentially hides most research behind a paywall again. Elsevier reveals itself as a profit-driven enterprise more than a research-facilitator by approving such a bill.
There is now even an organized effort to boycott and petition against Elsevier. You can look at the names of the people who are already taking part in the effort in the “Show names from” drop-down menu, and I was surprised to see many researchers I know. Graduate students like me should not be shy to join the effort. They face the publication process as well.
If you are not a researcher yourself, but still interested in science, you can still petition against the RWA here.