Digitally Mediated Information Services

These are my opinions alone and not necessarily those of my employer... in fact the lawyers would rather I said nothing.

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Location: Tucson, Arizona, United States

I am the Director of the School of Information Resources and Library Science. I am primarily interested in digital data gathering in the field, analysis, synthesis and visualization to impact environmental decision making.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Research Works Act: Public Access to taxpayer funded research (not)

Public Access to taxpayer funded research The Research Works Act H.R.3699

The Research Works Act, H.R. 3699, will expand and solidify inefficiency in government expenditures. The bill would make it law that taxpayers pay for research and then pay again to see the results of that research.  At all times we should make government as efficient as possible but, during this fiscal crisis, with unacceptable government debt, we must be doubly vigilant and ensure that taxpayer dollars are not spent needlessly in big government corporate welfare projects that do not create jobs or advance the health and wellbeing of taxpayers.

The current system for dissemination of findings of federally sponsored research is broken, inefficient and needlessly expansive. In spite of nearly miraculous advances in our ability to publish and disseminate information with the help of computers and the Internet, the cost for scientific publications has risen several fold over the past decade. The anomaly is created by inefficient practices where the federal government provides funds to universities and private firms to conduct research and then the researchers sign over monopoly copyright for their results to publishers who then charge private citizens $5 to $30 dollars to see the papers. Each major library and research center pays tens of thousands in taxpayer money to get access to collections of these papers each year. It they want to see the same papers a year later they need to pay thousands again year after year forever.  Libraries have no choice but to pay because researchers need access to the results of previous studies to make sure they are not wasting time and money repeating previous studies, studies whose results are now the sole property of the publishers. The Research Works Act would make this wasteful expenditure the law.

Publishers have a right to make a profit and in some cases provide an added value to publications but in the case of taxpayer funded research they provide editing and distribution services only. Peer review of research papers is primarily conducted by professors and government researchers also at taxpayer expense. Publishers have a “right” to make a fair profit on their contribution but that does not mean they have a “right” to monopoly copyright to taxpayer funded research. Indeed some publishers do very well without requiring monopoly copyright and exclusive distribution rights. The Public Library of Science is one example. Some government agencies have recently begun trying to fix the growing problems with the system by requiring that researchers who receive federal funds make taxpayer funded results available to the funder to provide to the public. For example, the National Institutes of Health funds critical research into cures for illness that are not adequately funded by the private sector. Under the current system of publication, the majority of the results from hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funding, end up being given freely to private firms that then collectively charge taxpayers millions of dollars to be able to read them. In other words, taxpayers like you pay twice for the same thing. Before the NIH policy, private firms end up with monopoly control of health results with exclusive distribution rights to the findings without making substantive financial contributions to the process. Recently, NIH has required NIH funded researchers to give NIH copies of their papers to distribute to taxpayers through the NIH web site. Under the new policy businesses can still add value to the publications by indexing them, for example, and still sell them to private citizens and libraries but not as a monopoly. To get someone to buy the publication, publishers need to actually add value. The current NIH policies have no impact on privately funded research, which is free to give or sell copyright to publishers as they will. This makes great sense for the taxpayer and helps to accelerate research since more people have access to prior work. Some, but not all, publishers are very unhappy with this new arrangement because it removes their monopoly control of the scientist’s publications. So, the publishers have sent their lobbyists to Washington to get congress to put more taxpayer money into their pockets for little or no effort on the part of the publishers, except of course for the effort of lobbying. Some fiscally irresponsible members of congress are siding with the lobbyists, which is no big surprise.

Some of the responsibility for this dreadful situation falls on the shoulders of lazy federal researchers. There is nothing that compels researchers at universities or government research centers to turn over monopoly copyright to publishers. Some of the best publishers do not even require turning over full copyright as a condition of publishing. The researchers just do not bother to read the terms and conditions of the publishing agreements. They do not challenge the details of the agreements and just sign whatever they are given. The money to buy access back from the publisher comes from someone else’s budget so the researchers do not care. Some libraries have tried educating researchers and scholars in their institutions but with little success. It is time that taxpayers and honest members of congress stand up to this outrage and kill the Research Works Act. In fact, we should go further to protect our nearly empty public coffers. We should introduce a new bill that does not restrict federal agencies from protecting taxpayer dollars but requires agencies to protect those dollars. The new bill, which we might call the “Real Research Works Act” would require all federal agencies to establish policies like NIH’s access policy, that guarantee taxpayer access to taxpayer funded research results.  

Contact your member of congress and ask them to kill the “Research Works Act” and replace it with the “Real Research Works Act”.