Research Works Act

In December, Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced H.R. 3699, the Research Works Act.

A BILL

To ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector.

That description is cut and pasted from the text at thomas.loc.gov. So far so good. We're all in favor of ensuring that peer-reviewed research continues to be published, and we're all in favor of integrity. But not so fast. Read a little further.

SEC. 2. LIMITATION ON FEDERAL AGENCY ACTION.
    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.
Sound harmless? Maybe even reasonable? Well, consider this:

The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.
The Research Works Act would invalidate the requirement for peer-reviewed NIH-supported research to be deposited in PubMed Central. It flies in the face of efforts to make the results of publicly funded research more broadly available.

I've written before that open access (and its variants) is one way to ensure broad public access to the results of scholarly research. And ensuring the broadest possible access ought to be a primary goal of any scholarly society involved in publishing. Those societies exist to enhance the work of scholars and to enhance the contributions scholars make to society. Both the work scholars do and the contributions that work makes to society depends on ready access to published scholarly work. The more widely available that work is, the greater the contributions to scholarship and the greater the contributions to society.
In December, the government of the UK took a different and highly commendable tack. They propose that all publicly funded research appear in open-access journals, and they propose "to shift the funding so that the academics could afford to pay to publish" (source)

Michael Eisen suggested that our own Congress should do something similar:

Rather than rolling back public access, Congress should move to enshrine a simple principle in United States law: if taxpayers paid for it, they own it. This is already the case for scientific papers published by researchers at the N.I.H. campus in Bethesda, Md., whose work, as government employees, has been explicitly excluded from copyright protection since 1976. It would be easy to extend this coverage to all works funded by the federal government.
I'd just add the caveat that scholarly publishing costs money (even though most editors and reviewers donate their services and authors of journal articles aren't paid). We have to make sure that scholarly societies and other publishers are able to recoup those costs.

But it's clear that our government should foster access to publicly funded research, not restrict it.