The Elsevier Boycott and the Research Works Act

Perhaps you’ve heard about the Elsevier Boycott aka the Cost of Knowledge. I’m not going to rehash the problem we all know so well. But here are a few links I wanted to share. Just fyi, Elsevier’s take home (EBITDA) is about $500 million/year. That’s about a quarter of what Starbucks makes. Or about 7-fold more than Newport Corporation makes. And as the graph above shows, a good chunk of the revenue is from their scientific publications. Making money is great. I only bring it up to highlight the magnitude of money that is being made. It’s not peanuts.

I’m inclined to believe that most publishers are well aware that their business model needs to evolve. I think most of them know that although their contribution to the scientific process is important, it is only a small part of the entire process now that distribution (and even basic typesetting) is quite trivial. I have this positive view because I’ve spoken personally with editors at top tier journals and this is the impression they left me with. They seemed very interested in finding new ways to contribute to the scientific process and increase the value of their services.

Apparently not all of the commercial scientific publishing world is so reasonable.

A DrugMonkey post pointed to this article by a UK publishing industry representative named Graham Taylor. He dissects it quite well. Here’s an excerpt:

From Graham Taylor’s article: “Public funds have not paid for the peer-reviewed articles that are based on research supported by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They have only paid for the research itself and whatever reports the researchers are required to submit to the agency.

DrugMonkey: Another falsehood, wrapped up with a disingenuous misdirecting belittlement. “Only” for the research? ONLY????? These publishers seem universally unaware that the VAST, VAST majority of the value of an academic article is the bloody research. The damn content. That is what has value. The fancy layout? That’s nice and all but we can do without that. The science is the thing. Trying to dismiss this as a minor contribution is…well…..that takes some serious chutzpah.

If publishers fail to adapt to the changes in technology that threaten their business model, then that’s a problem that scientists don’t necessarily have to worry about. There are plenty of new journals with excellent editorial oversight that are more than capable of taking up the slack. However, the big problem we all need to pay attention to is when publishers try to change laws to prevent the free distribution of research results. The current effort is a bill called the “Research Works Act”. As Michael Eisen describes in his blog, the bill is written to outlaw the free dissimination of taxpayer-funded research in order to protect the anachronistic business model of publishers like Elsevier.

The bill reads:

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.

And the bill’s definition of “private sector” includes all NIH-funded research carried out at universities.

They are using intentionally misleading language to distinguish works funded by the government but carried out by a non-governmental agency as “private sector research”. Thus, under this bill, works funded by the NIH but carried at a University would be “private sector research”.

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