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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 17, 2012

Down With the Research Works Act

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Posted by Derek

Back in December, a short bill was introduced in the House called the "Research Works Act". Its backers, Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), describe it as something that will maintain the US's standing in scientific publishing. After looking over its language and reading a number of commentaries on it, I have to disagree: this looks to me like shameless rent-seeking by the commercial scientific publishers.

And it pains me to say that, because I know several people in that business. But it's a business whose long-term model has problems. (See the Addendum below if you're not in the field and want a brief summary of how scientific publishing works). The problem is, the work of the editorial staff has changed a good deal over the years. Back when everyone sent in hard copies of papers, in who knows what sort of format, there was a good deal of work to do just turning the good ones into a consistent journal. Electronic submission has ironed a lot of the grunt work out - it's still work, but it's not what it used to be.

That leaves the higher editorial functions themselves, and here's where the arguing starts. Most, and in some cases all editing of content is done by unpaid peer reviewers. There are journals whose editors exist mainly to keep the flow of submissions moving to the reviewers, and from them back into the official journal, while hardly ever laying a finger on the copy itself. They function as Peer Review Mailroom Managers. And while that's a necessary job, it's the center of the argument about scientific publishing today. How much, exactly, is it worth?

Scientific journal are expensive. I mean, really, really expensive to subscribe to. And if you're not a subscriber, access to individual papers is pretty steep, too - typically in the $15 to $50 range. This is the business model for commercial scientific publishing: create a space with value (reputation, name recognition) and charge the maximum that that traffic will bear. And that's fine; there are a lot of businesses that work the same way - if they can.

The problem is, the information-sharing capabilities of the Internet blow a large hole in some of the traditional publishing model. And another problem is that a large number of papers that come into the journals from US academic researchers have had some (or all) of that work paid for by government grants (NIH, NSF, DOE and so on). As it stands, articles funded by the NIH are available in PubMed Central for free access, no later (by law) than 12 months from the initial journal publication. Researchers can also submit their work to "open access" journals (such as those from the Public Library of Science), which charge a fee to authors to defray editorial costs, but then allow immediate unlimited access to all comers once a paper is accepted. (I should note that some commercial journals get away with "page charges" as well, and some have a model where the authors can pay extra to bring their paper out from behind the paywall).

And here's where we have the Research Works Act. It would forbid any publication in an open access journal for anything funded in academia by US government grants, and it would forbid any public-access repository for such work. That's its purpose. Well, to be more accurate, its purpose, as described by the head of the Association of American Publishers, is that it "ensures the sustainability of the industry". Yep, make my business model part of statutory law, and beggar my competition: what else is a government for, anyway?

Update: see the comments section. I'm interpreting the text of the law to mean the above, but another way to read it - probably the correct one - is that it's mainly rolling back the 2008 law that mandates that NIH-funded papers go open-access after a year. But that's bad enough as it stands.

To their credit, the MIT Press looks like the first big academic publisher to defect from this position. But the commercial publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, and so on) will never give up on this goal. Yes, the RWA, according to them, is aimed at "preventing regulatory interference with private-sector research publishers". Here's Congresswoman Maloney using Elsevier's own press release language, sentence by sentence, as detailed by Michael Eisen, co-founder of PLoS. (He also has an op-ed in the New York Times on this issue).

I see no reason why we should make the current scientific publishing system a matter of law. I think it should change - and be allowed to change - as new technology allows it to. And I think that the Research Works Act is nothing more a blatant attempt to hold on to a profitable business plan.

Addendum: For those outside the scientific world, here's a brief summary of how things have traditionally worked. As a scientist (academic or industrial), you take the time and effort to write up your results for a journal. You have to pick your journal at the start of the process, since each of them have their own ways of organizing a paper, their own preferred way of citing other papers as references, and so on. Anyone can send anything to any journal they feel like, although you'd be well advised to target your paper to the ones that (a) have the best chance to actually accept it and (b) will do you good to have a paper published in. The overlap between those two may not be large, or may not exist at all, depending on your paper. These days, most journals have templates for Word or the like, which standardizes the submissions, and have some sort of automatic PDF generation during the submission step step so you can see how the paper will look when formatted in the journal's style and page layout.

Your manuscript is given a quick check to make sure that it's appropriate for review. A few of of the higher-end journals make this a key step, because they can afford to turn down even rather interesting papers as not necessarily worth their time to go on checking. But in most journals, unless there's something obviously off, your paper goes out for peer review. Two or more scientists from Out There Somewhere look it over and send in comments. Those comment forms have a section for the original authors to see, and a section for remarks that go just to the editorial staff, and you can use those as you see fit. (I, for example, once used the latter forum to ask the editors to please stop sending me papers from a certain author, because I'd done three of them and couldn't stand to see any more. They honored my request.)

As an author, you see the comments when they come back and get a recommendation from the journal - usually it's "Publish as is", "Publish after minor revisions", "Publish after major revisions", or "Go away". That last one usually isn't expressed in quite those words. The middle two are the most common, since most stuff eventually gets published somewhere if the authors are persistent enough (and are willing enough to have their work appear in the Zambodian Journal of Chemistry or what have you).

Now at this point, traditionally, the work of assembling the accepted papers into a printed journal kicks in on the editorial side. And it still does, but that process is becoming less and less important. I honestly can't tell you when I last saw a hard copy of any of the journals I read regularly. Even the idea of separate issues is becoming antiquated, since new papers (in the case of many journals) just plop out onto the web site (and into the RSS feeds) as they emerge from the review process.

Comments (35) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Lars Ambach on January 17, 2012 9:44 AM writes...

This bill is a horrible, horrible idea. The very notion that publicly funded research results should be available through commercial publishers only is offensive to me.

Mandatory open access for people who get funded by gov grants is the very least. You get tax money, you show what you did with it to the tax payers (even if only a small percentage is interested in what you actually do). Simple as that.

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2. PharmaHeretic on January 17, 2012 9:48 AM writes...

Publishing is the one aspect of modern science which is even more scam ridden than the stuff it publishes. OK, peer review as we know it is almost as bad- but that raises a bigger question.

How can an enterprise that runs on pedigree, abuse of its workers, dogma, groupthink, delusions, scams and reviews its work through equally scummy people to publish in rent-seeking journals discover scientific truth other than by accident?

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3. Winston Churchill on January 17, 2012 9:49 AM writes...

This bill is yet another example of why campaign finance reform is so necessary. True democracy in the best interest of the people cannot exist when politicians are up for sale.

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4. Virgil on January 17, 2012 9:52 AM writes...

I have already written my member of congress (Louise Slaughter) asking her to oppose the bill, and to look more deeply into the "coincidence" that its co-sponsor just happens to hold the congressional seat for NYC, where all the big publishers have their offices. I would encourage everyone to do the same.

Another "coincidence"... this bill was introduced the very same week that the OSTP closed down its request-for-information on the future of public access. Publishers were lobbying heavily with academics to have them submit pro-journal viewpoints to this RFI. The bill (HR3699) appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to get some legislation on the books before the inevitable results of that RFI are made public.

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5. milkshake on January 17, 2012 9:53 AM writes...

it reminds me the Adam Smith quote: "As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce."

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6. Bender on January 17, 2012 10:01 AM writes...

I'd like to know what Rudy Baum thinks of this, considering he is a strong opponent of open access, yet recently wrote an editorial lambasting the government for trying to suppress access to research on man-made flu viruses.

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7. MTK on January 17, 2012 10:01 AM writes...

Politics as usual as they say.

Wasn't it Rick Santorum while a Senator that introduced a bill that would have prohibited the National Weather Service from making, well, weather predictions? It was, of course, coincidental that Accu-Weather is located in State College, PA and contributed to his campaign.

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8. zmil on January 17, 2012 10:08 AM writes...

" It would forbid any publication in an open access journal for anything funded in academia by US government grants..."

While I think the law is a terrible, horrible, very bad idea, I don't think this is accurate, from my reading of the law. It forbids the gov't from *requiring* open access to federally funded research papers, but it does not forbid open access publication of said research.

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9. RickW on January 17, 2012 10:30 AM writes...

Thanks for this post. I've never been as big of a supporter of open access journals as some others, since getting a good faculty position in biology still means having Cell/Science/Nature papers as a postdoc. This law, however, is really outrageous. I second the comment above about campaign finance reform. I can't think of another bill or law that is more blatantly bought and paid for without any public benefit.

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10. Anonymous on January 17, 2012 10:53 AM writes...

Look up the definition of Fascism. This bill fits it perfectly.

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11. johnnyboy on January 17, 2012 10:54 AM writes...

Campaign finance reform ? Ha ! There's just been one rather large campaign finance reform last year, in the form of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. The supremes basically handed over the political system on a silver platter to large corporations. As long as the court is dominated by republicans, you can expect more and more of such 'pay to play' laws, not fewer.

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12. Honclbrif on January 17, 2012 11:41 AM writes...

Holy crap. I've never written to my congressman before, but I just did.

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13. Winston Churchill on January 17, 2012 11:54 AM writes...

Honclbrif, did you include a check with your letter?

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14. pete on January 17, 2012 12:11 PM writes...

@13 Winston
"..did you include a check with your letter?"
I'd venture that if you could follow the money on this bill, you'd find significant quid pro quo ($$$) going from the publisher's accounts ==> Issa- & Maloney-related accounts.

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15. bmartinmd on January 17, 2012 12:15 PM writes...

While I'm certainly no legal scholar, I wonder if the bill itself is completely unconstitutional (ie, anti-First Amendment). That said, I'm constantly irritated that the published results of any medical or scientific research funded in whole or in part by taxpayer money is not made immediately and freely accessible (bugger 12 months).

However, I would heartily disagree with the notion that editorial services (at least at some scientific/medical journals) are largely pro forma these days. Copy editors, in particular, perform a tremendous amount of work mechanically and stylistically reshaping submitted articles into something approaching comprehension. In my experience working at an unnamed medical journal, submitted articles were largely in unpublishable English (including those by UK and American authors), and peer reviewers submitted only suggestions or recommendations for high-level content changes. They certainly did not perform any heavy lifting in terms of editing or frankly rewriting an entire article so that it was actually readable and understandable. That job was left to the editors, and specifically woefully underpaid copy editors. The painful quality of first-draft writing by physicians and scientists hasn't and won't change merely because we're in the electronic age. Sadly.

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16. William Penrose on January 17, 2012 2:07 PM writes...

So who's surprised? Congress is blatantly up for sale, and will be for some time to come. If I were earning the fat profits commercial publishers rake it, I'd do whatever to protect it.

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17. Derek Lowe on January 17, 2012 2:24 PM writes...

#8 Zmil - here's the text:

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.

The second part is what you address, that no one could require open access. But the first part is what I was thinking of. "Without the prior consent of the publisher of said work", which isn't going to happen, "No Federal agency", which means all the granting agencies, can permit any private-sector work (their grant recipients) to be open-access.

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18. zmil on January 17, 2012 2:38 PM writes...

"'Without the prior consent of the publisher of said work', which isn't going to happen..."

Unless you publish in an open access journal.

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19. Derek Lowe on January 17, 2012 5:13 PM writes...

But I wonder if that second clause even permits anyone with NIH money (or any other government grant) to publish in an open-access journal at all? After all, by publishing in one, that "requires that you assent to network dissemination". Otherwise, what does an open-access journal require you to do?

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20. zmil on January 17, 2012 5:33 PM writes...

Maybe I'm parsing the lawyerese wrong, but I think the second clause "requires" refers to the Feds, not the publishers. Basically, they can't require Fed-funded research be published in open-access journals. And, from the first clause, they can't permit dissemination of non-open access papers.

Without the second clause the first clause would let the NIH require that all NIH-funded research be published in PLoS or some such, kind of the opposite of what Elsevier and friends want...

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21. Will on January 17, 2012 5:38 PM writes...

here's how i read the two clauses

the first clause repeals the current rule by the NIH that after one year, NIH funded research must be made publicly available. Instead, the publisher (eg, elsevier/acs) must give consent to disseminate the work, regardless of how old it is

the second clause recognizes that the NIH may try to go around the first, and thus prohibits the NIH from requiring that funded research be published in a freely available format (eg PLoS). the law doesn't prevent an indvidual from choosing to publish in PLoS, it just can't force him/her to do it.

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22. Will on January 17, 2012 5:43 PM writes...

along a slightly different line, i've noticed that at least one big name in academic organic, dave evans, has direct links to all his publications in pdf format

presumably acs/elsevier doesn't like this - how does he get away with it?

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23. A different Derek on January 17, 2012 6:07 PM writes...

The devil's in the definitions (Section 3 of the law).
A "private-sector research work" is defined more-or-less as an article *submitted to a journal* (the language is "intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication . . . 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").
So the first part of the operative part of the Act, Section 2, quoted by Derek Lowe at 17, would inter alia prohibit the current NIH practice of requiring their grantees' articles be available for free access after 1 year *unless the publisher agreed* (fat chance, unless the journal is open-source), while the second part would prevent granting agencies from requiring grantees to agree to open-source dissemination of their submitted articles.
Thus, as I understand it, grantees could submit to open-source journals, but if they choose to submit to, say, an Elsevier journal, the sponsoring agency can't make the article open-source without Elsevier's consent, nor can it require the grantee to agree that the article become open-source.

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24. A different Derek on January 17, 2012 6:13 PM writes...

Le me rewrite my last sentence from 23:

Thus, as I understand it, grantees can submit to open-source journals if they wish but the granting agency can't make them do so (part 2 of Section 2); and if they do submit to, say, an Elsevier journal, the granting agency can't make the article open-source without Elsevier's consent (part 1)

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25. Martin on January 17, 2012 6:42 PM writes...

Haven't seen this mentioned here in the comments but one things that does strike me (as an non-US citizen, living outside the US) about this bill is that it would appear to also be a token means to stop those underpaid overworked labworkers in Zambodia or anywhere to profit from the toils of US citizens paid for by the US taxpayer. Or am I reading too much?

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26. Mutant Dragon on January 17, 2012 10:05 PM writes...

This is a downright joke. Journal subscriptions cost an arm and a leg and yet most of the real editing is done gratis, as you point out. So why on Earth do we need the government to grant the traditional publishers a monopoly? I personally think it's ludicrous that the published results of research that the taxpayer funded are not freely available to said taxpayer as it is. I would dearly love to know what prompted said Congresscritters to introduce this ridiculous excuse for a piece of legislation.

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27. Dan on January 17, 2012 11:00 PM writes...

I don't read the quoted section the same way, Derek. It looks to me like Will and the other Derek have it right: the bill would not forbid the author from submitting to an open-access publication, but it would guarantee that they cannot be _required_ to do so and that the federal agency cannot resubmit the paper to an open-access publication.

(I wonder, though ... is the "publisher of such work" defined as the journal in which it's published, or the author of the paper? Legalese is a language all its own.)

I think that's still a mistake (publicly funded research ought to be publicly available, period, unless we're talking military-classified stuff), but it's less of a mistake than actually forbidding it.

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28. Hibob on January 17, 2012 11:05 PM writes...

Universities are tired of being cash cows for Elsevier et ilk; there's certainly no love lost between the U of C and Nature Publishing Group.

Who wants to bet that other universities will follow MIT and adopt a licensing model that reserves open access copyright on all of their faculties' manuscripts?

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29. Anonymous Academic on January 17, 2012 11:35 PM writes...

I agree with zmil/Will/Dan - nothing I've read suggests that the bill would actually prohibit publishing in an open-access journal (which would be truly wretched even by the low, low standards of the US Congress). The actual intent is bad enough, and a blatant attempt to preserve an obsolete business model, but it's not actually trying to put the competition out of business.

@Hibob: universities may be tired of the big publishers, but the faculty are still pretty spineless - how many UC professors (aside from Michael Eisen) do you think would pass up publication in Nature just to stand on principle?

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30. zmil on January 18, 2012 12:18 AM writes...


"along a slightly different line, i've noticed that at least one big name in academic organic, dave evans, has direct links to all his publications in pdf format

presumably acs/elsevier doesn't like this - how does he get away with it?"

I believe this is generally accepted practice; researchers have always had the right to give out copies of their papers. Putting links on the web goes a little farther than that, but I've seen it reasonably often, and I think the publishers don't mind too much. Not sure, though.

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31. Wilson on January 18, 2012 12:54 PM writes...

So what's the position of the American Chemical Society on this issue?

I can guess.

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32. Rich Apodaca on January 18, 2012 2:13 PM writes...

Derek, you're usually right on target, but you should have read up more before writing about this issue. Not only do you get some of the facts wrong (as your revisions indicate), but I think you've failed to consider the bigger picture.

See this for an alternative perspective:

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33. Eric Jablow on January 18, 2012 7:18 PM writes...

For a very thoughtful look at the world of academic publishing, you might want to look at Donald Knuth's letter to the editorial board of the Journal of Algorithms about their dispute with Elsevier. After all, you and your publishers are probably using his software.

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34. hibob on January 22, 2012 7:00 PM writes...

Whether or not UC professors would stand on principle as individuals, the UC system as a whole was working on an MIT style open access policy back in '07. They dropped it after the NIH open access policy solved some of the issues.

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35. Jim A on February 3, 2012 10:47 AM writes...

Keep in mind that the publishers are perfectly free to decline to publish works covered by the NIH mandate. No government agency is forcing them to do anything. But it seems that free is too much to pay to get one year of exclusive access to government funded research. So THEY don't think that the editing that they provide is valuable enough that they can simply decline to publish research funded by NIH. It would be like a factory trying to lockout unpaid volunteers...Instead they want a law mandating that they will have exclusive rights to the research for the near-infinite copyright term.

It's similar to the WIPO broadcast treaty in an attempt to preserve or create copyright or copyright-like rights for the distributers rather than the creators of content.

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