The Dangerous “Research Works Act”

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This guest post was written by Richard Price, founder and CEO of Academia.edu, a site that serves as a platform for academics to share their research papers and to interact with each other. Note that Price is not unbiased in this discussion — should the Research Works Act pass, it would decrease the number of papers the site would be able to easily distribute among researchers. But, as he explains, his viewpoint is shared by many academics. Update: The original version of this article had an issue with some text getting stripped — the full article is now here.

Poorly thought-through copyright bills seem to be popular in Congress these days.

Congress is currently considering a bill called “The Research Works Act”, whose purpose is to restrict public access to publicly-funded research. The bill is sponsored by large academic publishers who are keen to keep all research, including publicly-funded research, behind paywalls in perpetuity.

Academics are up in arms about this bill, and so are universities, and funding bodies. Over 5,500 academics have signed a boycott of Elsevier, who is the largest academic publisher, and one of the main sponsors of the bill. Elsevier is the target of the boycott not only because of its support of the Research Works Act, but also because of the increasingly high prices that it is charging for its journals.

Making research accessible: the open access mandate

Currently the US government provides about $30 billion of funding every year for research in biology and medicine. This funding is dispensed by a federal agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

As part of its “open access mandate”, the NIH requires that any NIH-funded research has to be made freely accessible 12 months after publication. There can be a 12 month paywall, during which the publishers can recoup their costs, but after 12 months, the paywall has to come down. The thinking here is that the US taxpayer should not have to pay for research twice: once to fund it, and a second time to read it.

The aim of the Research Works Act is to reverse this open access policy, and ensure that all research remains behind publisher paywalls in perpetuity, even if it has been funded by the public.

Journal publishers have managed to convince two members of Congress, Carolyn Maloney (NY) and Darrell Issa (CA) that this Act is in the interests of the American public.

Journal publishers have two arguments in favor of the Research Works Act. I’ll refer to these publishers generically as ‘the journal industry’, though it’s worth noting that a there is a minority of journal publishers who don’t support the Research Works Act.

Journal Industry argument (1): The moral argument

The journal industry thinks that it is morally wrong for the government to ask for publicly-funded research to be freely accessible to the public.

The way the research process works is like this:

  1. An academic does some research, often funded by a government grant
  2. The academic writes up a paper and submits it to an academic journal
  3. The journal publisher adds some value to the paper, mainly formatting and secretarial services, and then publishes the paper.

The journal publishers believe that the public funding of research stops at step 2, where the academic submits the paper to a journal. At that stage, the journal publishers argue, the academic is free to share their paper with the world.

However, in step 3, the journal publishers add some value to the paper, which we can call the “publisher delta”; this delta, or added value, consists mainly in formatting and secretarial skills around the organization of peer review (the peer reviewing itself is done for free, by academics).

The publisher delta is something they own, and is the result of private investment, rather than government funding. They believe that if an academic wants to share that publisher delta with the world, they should have to ask the publisher first.

In the eyes of the journal industry, it’s unfair, and a case of unwarranted government intervention into private markets, that the government should mandate that the publisher delta has to be shared with the public after 12 months.

Journal industry argument (2): The Sustainability argument

The public has a commitment to fund scientific research, and, as part of that commitment, it is wants to ensure the successful distribution of research.

The journal industry has historically supported itself by charging for access to research papers. It believes that the government’s open access mandate threatens the sustainability of the journal industry.

In particular, it thinks that, with the open access mandate, research institutions will stop subscribing to the journals, and instead decide to wait 12 months to get the research for free.

As a result of this, revenues in the journal industry will drop, leading to the whole journal industry collapsing. If the journal industry disappears, the public will lose out, as it will lose its primary distribution model for research.

The flaw in the moral argument: customers should be allowed to negotiate for better business terms

The US government provides about $30 billion of funding each year for research in biology and medicine. In return, it gets around 80,000 published articles.

In the pre-web days, it cost quite a lot to distribute papers around the world. As a result, the US government understood that, if it was going to support distribution, it was going to have to offer relatively attractive distribution terms to the journal publishers. In particular, it was going to have to allow journal publishers to keep taxpayer-funded research behind paywalls in perpetuity. It was considered that no weaker terms would cover the cost of distribution.

Now, in the days of the web, distribution of content is dramatically cheaper. Correspondingly, taxpayers should be getting better distribution terms for the money they are investing in research. In particular, they should be able to read the research they have funded for free, at some point after publication, instead of being confronted with paywalls that exist for perpetuity.

To reflect the idea that the public should be getting a better deal, the National Institutes of Health, the dispenser of the US government’s $30 billion annual biomedical research budget, enacted its open access mandate in 2008. It’s this open access mandate that the journal industry wants to reverse.

Not only this, but the purpose of the Research Works Act is to make it illegal for the US government ever to negotiate for better distribution terms for taxpayer-funded research.

The journal industry wants the distribution terms that made sense in the pre-web days written into law, so that the US government can never change those terms. Economically handcuffing the US government like this would be a great outcome for the journal industry, and a terrible outcome for the public.

The moral argument carries no weight: clearly a customer who is buying a product should be allowed to seek better terms. In this case the customer is the US government, who is buying published scientific articles on behalf of the public.

A monopsonistic situation

The US government does, however, have to be careful with what it asks for. It is a monopsony in this situation, i.e. a single buyer. It funds virtually all the academic research into biology and medicine in the US. It therefore gets whatever it asks for, and so it needs to be careful that what it asks for is, indeed, in the interests of the public. It does not want the journal publishers to go out of business.

This pushes the focus onto the Sustainability argument. The journal industry argues that the US government’s open access mandate jeopardizes its revenues, and thereby puts the whole scientific distribution model at risk.

The flaw in the Sustainability Argument: revenues and profits in the journal industry are at record highs

The US government’s policy has been in place since 2008, so there are 3 years of revenue data to look at.

The top three academic publishers are Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley. From 2008 to 2010:

  • Their combined revenues grew 11% from $4.7 billion to $5.3 billion.
  • Their profits grew 17% from $1.6 billion to $1.9 billion.

It’s worth noting that these healthy revenue and profit increases occurred during a global recession.

The reasons that revenues have been rising are:

  1. Journal subscription prices have been going up
  2. The open access mandate hasn’t led departments to cancel their subscriptions

To be research-active, departments have to have the latest research. They can’t unsubscribe, and wait 12 months to get access to free research that is a year old.

The strong revenue and profit growth in the academic publishing industry leads one to wonder what Carolyn Maloney and Darrell Issa were thinking when they said that the US government’s open access policy would jeopardize their revenues and their business model. How did they reconcile the tale of woe that the journal industry has been telling with the annual reports of the journal publishers, which tell of growing and thriving businesses?

The strategic significance of The Research Works Act

The journal industry maintains a very strong grip on academic departments: they can keep on increasing subscription prices, and the departments have to pay up. You cannot be in business as a research institution without access to the journals. That grip currently shows no sign of loosening.

The effect of the Research Works Act would be that the journal industry would have a similarly iron grip on the US government, by making it illegal for the government to negotiate for better distribution terms for research.

Strategically the Research Works Act would be an amazing coup for the journal industry.

The journal industry has two paymasters in the US:

  • the research institutions who buy the journal subscriptions
  • the US government who funds almost all of the research.

The journal industry already has a vice-like grip on the research institutions. They can keep raising the subscription prices, and, to stay alive, the research institutions have to pay up.

Fortunately, there is another paymaster, the US government, who can negotiate for better distribution terms for taxpayer-funded research. With the journal industry squeezing departments with price hikes over the last 15 years, the US government has managed to score a win for the public with its open access mandate in 2008.

If the Research Works Act passes, the journal industry will be able to continue squeezing departments with price hikes, and the only other major negotiating force, the US government will have been gagged. It would be a genius heist by the journal industry.

What next?

The journal industry is very good at lobbying. Somehow it managed to convince two members of Congress, Carolyn Maloney, and Darrell Issa, that the Research Works Act is good for the American people. Through a lack of scrutiny and care, Maloney and Issa are willingly embracing the handcuffs that the journal industry wants the US government to wear.

The brands of the journal publishers supporting the Research Works Act are currently in free-fall within the academic community. Hopefully Congress will notice this, and apply some scrutiny to the journal industry’s arguments for the Research Works Act.

Two excellent blogs for keeping up with the discussion around the Research Works Act are:

The Elsevier boycott is gathering momentum on The Cost of Knowledge and Black Sclera site. A good resource page of further links is maintained by Michael Nielsen here. The text of the Research Works Act is here.

You can contact Carolyn Maloney and Darrell Issa via their webpages:

A development in the last few days is that five members of Congress have proposed a counter-bill, called the Federal Research Public Access Act, which requires that virtually all federally research be accessible within 6 months of publication.