U.S. Research Works Act Leads to Elsevier Journal Boycott: What Is to Be Done?

This January, Silicon Valley got political, and effectively so. The giants of the valley were soon credited with saving the Internet from the threat of Hollywood-inspired legislative clamp-down on online piracy. Google – “End piracy, not liberty” – as well as Facebook and Wikipedia, actively opposed two draconian bills Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) that were seen to pose threats to the free flow of information that opened the door to censorship. The bills were effectively “defeated” by the corporate and non-profit outcry.

However, what was left standing is the Research Works Act, a bill introduced into the House on December 16, 2011 that has been called “a killer cousin” of SOPA and PIPA. Rather than intellectual property holders focusing on piracy, with this bill, they seek to curtail federal government efforts to make federally funded research more widely available. The bill would prevent federal agencies from contributing to, as it is worded, “the network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher.”

That seems civil enough until you realize that the bill is directed against the 2008 National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy, which requires NIH funding recipients to make resulting publications available through PubMed Central. The policy already makes concessions to the publishers, with a twelve-month embargo following publication after which only the draft peer-reviewed version can be posted for public access.

After interest has been expressed in seeing this policy spread to other areas of federal research funding, such as education, it appears that Elsevier, the leading corporate publisher of scholarly journals, and other publishers have pushed for the Research Works Act to put an end to such initiatives (judging by Elsevier’s campaign support for the bipartisan sponsors of the bill, as Peter Suber documents in a website devoted to the bill).

Legislative efforts to curtail public access to research have arisen before, but what is particularly troubling in this proposed legislation is how it refers to research as “private-sector research work.” It defines private-sector research as “an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication.” That is, surely, all of the research.

So here we have it. By virtue of the intent to publish in a journal, research can be said to belong to the private sector? It seems to matter little that the research is funded by the public, conducted in public institutions (or those granted tax-exempt status) by those trained and paid by such institutions. Now, I realize that researchers have long transferred their copyright to publishers, but only to facilitate publication and not to render it “private-sector research.”

Yet rather than referencing the copyright transfer, the legislation refers to how “a commercial or nonprofit publisher” makes “a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing” to the research. This might well seem like the worst sort of excess of John Locke’s famous labor-mixing property principle: “He hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (Treatise II, §27). Never mind that Locke saw this principle applying only to unclaimed land (“from the common state of nature”) and not to existing property. Sure, the journal publishers mix their labor with the research articles, and deserve fair recompense for that service. But own the research? Turn it, by a click of the mouse into private-sector research? That’s purely a corporate Cinderella-story, one that should set off alarm bells.

Enter the Elsevier Boycott. On January 21st 2012, Tim Gowers, a Fields Medal winning mathematician at Cambridge posted on his blog Elsevier ‑- My Part in their Downfall. He stated he would no longer have anything to do with Elsevier in light of its high subscription prices, the bundling of titles, and its support for the Research Works Act. His decision sparked a boycott of Elsevier signed (at The Cost of Knowledge) by those researchers – approaching 6,000 names as I write – refusing to deal with Elsevier. This has garnered lots of attention, with Elsevier jumping to its own defense. Then, further heating things up, on February 9, 2012, the Federal Research Public Access Act, which would extend the public access policy to all federal agencies with research budgets over $100 million, was re-introduced to Congress

Now, amid boycotts and counter-legislation it is wise to recall that, in 2001, Pat Brown at Stanford and Berkeley’s Michael Eisen started a similar, if more broadly based, boycott, gathering in excess of 30,000 signatures, with no significant effect on the publishers. At least not until the two of them were joined by Nobel-prize winning Harold Varmus, in starting the Public Library of Science (PLoS) with the intent of publishing high-impact open access journals. PLoS has gone on to publish PLoS Biology, now the highest ranked journal in biology, as well as PLoS One, a “mega-journal” publishing 14,000 articles annually, with the emphasis of rapid publication and post-publication evaluation with article-level statistics.

The PLoS publishing model? Offer open access to readers by charging an article processing fee, usually covered by the authors’ grants. For PLoS One, the fee is $1,350, with fee waivers provided as needed. It would seem to make sense to research funders to invest in enhancing the ultimate value of their contribution to knowledge. And what the processing fee should be may require some sorting out. PLoS One has a staff of twenty-four, with thirty others in production and web services for PLoS as a whole. With much smaller journals, we found in a study of journals across the disciplines that article processing expenses were running under $200 on average. At the very least, we might imagine that a more competitive, free market pricing of those article processing fees (compared to subscriptions’ monopoly market) would lead to a fair price.

But what about those often grant-less philosophers, mathematicians, and others? Well, with the shift to this model of open access, universities can reallocate funds from library subscriptions to article processing fees. And by my back-of-the-napkin calculations, the roughly $9 billion spent on journal subscriptions should about cover the article processing fees in all areas.

So take note. Boycotts are an easy ways to signal discontent. Now that we have people’s attention, substantial changes to the circulation of knowledge call for more concerted actions on everyone’s part, and can begin in these two ways:

  1. Researchers can fill the open access archives in their libraries with everything they have ever placed with Elsevier and other corporate publishers, and can do so in accord with those publishers’ archiving policies, making clear that their commitment to sharing knowledge extends to the time it takes to archive their work for public access.
  2. Those with academic standing and stature who feel that their field is not adequately covered by open access journals (see directory) can occupy the future of knowledge by creating new journals to give their colleagues new options, following the PLoS model. These journals can be funded by article processing fees and run on open source journal management and publishing software (such as Open Journal Systems, which is what we at the Public Knowledge Project have been working on over the last decade in an effort to create a public-sector alternative for journals).

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