The fingerprints of intensive corporate lobbying by the American Association of Publishers are all over the Research Works Act, a transparent effort at boosting private profit margins at public expense. ProPublica takes a look at the AAP’s pro forma defense of the bill:
This isn’t the first effort by publishers to push Congress to roll back the NIH’s public access policy, which was enacted in 2008 and applauded by doctors, patients, librarians, teachers and students. Under the policy, all research funded by the NIH was required to be made freely available to the public one year after publication on PubMed Central. (The NIH also runs PubMed, a biomedical research database that includes articles that aren’t federally funded and cost money to access.)
In 2009, as Eisen notes, the Association of American Publishers backed the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act. That bill never left committee, but this new bill is essentially a shorter version of the same thing (and was similarly praised by the AAP for forbidding “federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles”).
Two arguments in favor of the bill crop up regularly:
- Publishers like Elsevier add value to every scientific journal article by overseeing the peer-review, editing and publishing process. Because of this contribution, they deserve exclusive rights to each article permanently, not merely one year after it has been published. Tom Reller, vice president for global corporate relations at Elsevier, comments here that Elsevier and other commercial and nonprofit publishers invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in managing the publication of journal articles.”
- Publishing companies need this money to keep the industry going. As the AAP states: “At a time when job retention, U.S. exports, scholarly excellence, scientific integrity and digital copyright protection are all priorities, the Research Works Act ensures the sustainability of this industry.”
In the recent commotion over the bill (here’s a roundup of recent posts), the academic community has replied to both of these claims.
In response to the added value argument, Kevin Smith, scholarly communications officer at Duke University, argues that publishers don’t actually produce or add much themselves. The work comes from academics and from the peer reviewers who volunteer their time to read and critique the work of their fellow academics. According to Eisen, although publishers might contribute a little something to the peer-review process (organization, supervision, etc.), this pales in comparison to the work done for free.
In response to the jobs and industry argument, Heather Morrison, a doctoral candidate at the Simon Fraser University School of Communication in Vancouver, B.C., points out that the top scientific, technical and medical publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Informa) have seen profit margins of 30 percent to 35 percent in the last year. Elsevier, part of a global multibillion-dollar information conglomerate with offices in New York City, publishes about 1,800 journals and last year made a profit of $1.1 billion.