Monday, March 09, 2009

Conyers fails to explain opposition to open access to science

From Michael Eisen at the Huffington Post:
"Lawrence Lessig and I have been writing about the link between publisher contributions to members of the House Judiciary Committee and their support for H.R. 801 - a bill that would end the newly implemented NIH public access policy that makes all works published as part of NIH-funded research freely available online. On Friday, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) - lead sponsor of the bill - responded in a letter on Huffington Post.

The first several paragraphs of Conyers' letter contain an outline of his record as a progressive politician. But no record, no matter how distinguished, is an excuse for introducing an atrocious piece of legislation that sacrifices the public interest to those of a select group of publishing companies.

Conyers would have us believe that it is just a coincidence that his bill would erase a government policy vehemently opposed by publishers who have contributed to his campaigns. But his response to our letter - like the bill itself - is taken straight from the publishers' playbook.

Conyers trots out the publishers' two favorite lines of attack against the policy: 1) that the NIH policy is taking a right (in this case a copyright) away from publishers, and 2) that making taxpayer-funded research available to taxpayers will bankrupt publishers and thereby destroy science.

Both arguments are specious and reflect fundamental ignorance about how science and scientific publishing work...

Far from being the reckless act Conyers portrays, the NIH policy is actually fairly conservative. It requires that papers that arise from NIH funded research be made freely available, through a website run by the National Library of Medicine, within 12 months of publication - not immediately. This delay between publication and free public access was put in precisely because it will allow publishers to recoup, and profit from, their investment in publishing by charging for access to the freshest material.

Science moves far too fast for active researchers to afford a year's delay before reading papers in their field. Thus universities and other research institutions have to maintain subscriptions to journals even if their year-old content is freely available. Many journals, realizing that their revenue comes primarily from new material, already make their complete contents freely available online after a year or less. And these journals have not reported a wave of canceled subscriptions - or any appreciable loss of revenue. So both empirical data and publisher actions refute Conyers' central argument against the NIH public access policy.

Conyers' argument is also clouded by several misconceptions about scientific publishing. He correctly identifies peer review as the most important role of scientific journals. But he is incorrect in his assertion that publishers make a tremendous investment of "their own, non-federal resources" in the process of peer review. While publishers supervise peer review, the process itself is carried out voluntarily by members of the research community. Scientists receive no remuneration whatsoever when they review a paper - they do it instead out because they recognize that peer review is central to the scientific process.

Since the salaries of most American scientists are paid, directly or indirectly, by the US government, the peer review process is actually a massive federal subsidy to publishers, whose very existence is based on the tens of billions of annual taxpayer dollars invested in scientific research. That even after they have had a year to profit from this taxpayer largesse some publishers are still unwilling to grant the public access to copies of papers they paid to produce and review is unconscionable.

And while Representative Conyers' publishing friends may have convinced him that there are severe unintended consequences that will arise from the NIH public access policy, the scientific community - who has been debating this issue for over a decade - strongly disagrees. Elias Zerhouni - who was NIH Director until last year - spent years crafting this policy in consultation with scientists, publishers, and members of Congress. It is strongly supported by his predecessor, Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, and a cadre of his American Nobel prizewinning colleagues. And the world's leading private medical research organizations - the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust - have, after extensive research and discussion, adopted even more aggressive policies than the NIH. Does Representative Conyers really think he better understands what's good for science than they do all of these groups and people?"

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