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Thursday Morning Vamp and the Research Work Act Atrocity

Some interesting stuff to read while I get my s%^& together.

Happy Anniversary to us!  Yesterday, The Confluence turned 4.  This blog began as a refuge in the Oort belt of the blogosphere from the rampant Obamaism on DailyKos in mid-January 2008.  I was thrown out of DailyKos for being insufficiently programmable, wrote a polite note of thanks to Kos for all the good times and found my way to WordPress.  Never regretted it.  We would like to thank you for all for your friendship through the last four turbulent years.  We’ve had our ups, downs, layoffs and controversies but we’re still here.  And some of you are still reading, which either makes you dedicated friends or seriously nutz.  Or both.  During this election year, let’s try to break the 12,000,000 unique page hits milestone and not back down for a moment.  Consider this one of the few places on the web where you can feel safe to be unpopular.  Resistance is not useless.  You will not be assimilated.


Back to the topic of scientific literature.  If you read my last post on the subject and the potentially negative impact SOPA would have on access to scientific literature, you will have learned that the bozos at ACS charge $30.00 a pop for a single paper.  By the way, I just have to take a moment here and point out that scientists get the shaft when it comes to earning money from their own discoveries.  No, companies and governmental entities that hand out grant money act like they’re doing you a favor by giving you money to live on.  Scientists who work for corporations sell their patents to that corporation for a token amount, typically $1.  If the company can successfully navigate the FDA to get approval, that patent could be worth billions.  And, ya’ know, for many years, I thought this was a fair arrangement.  Research is expensive and it’s great to work for a company that foots the bills in terms of lab space, reagents and software licences.  But then they started laying us off when the drugs couldn’t meet the FDA’s increasingly high standards or navigate the political and legal landscapes.  Suddenly, it’s OUR fault that the drugs aren’t perfect as if we have any control over every rebellious cell in the human body.  But whatever.  When scientists who have made a company billions on patents that we sold them for a buck are laid off, we’re going to start to wonder what’s in it for us in future negotiations.  And that, my friends, is a bad development.  But we have to eat too and now that so many of us are unemployed, our overhead costs for staying in science are exponentially increased.  Someone has to pay for that.  Why should we live in poverty while the MBAs live off the products of our creativity?

Anyway, the latest shameful maneuver is from scientific literature publishers like the Wiley and Elsevier.  They want the passage of a bill called, Research Works Act.  Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline sums up what is starting to feel very much like righteous indignation:

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?

Read Derek’s update on this subject too.  He reports that the journal Nature, has come out against RWA.  Nature is one of the most prestigious journals and I am really happy to hear this.  In short, Derek thinks that like the major media conglomerates who are pushing for SOPA and PIPA, the science journal giants are stubbornly refusing to evolve and change their business model, forcing us to pay high rates for content that they get for free.  Without access to papers at a reasonable price, these journal giants will fail and for the scientific community, that’s probably a good thing.  Liberate the discoveries!  We don’t need no stinkin’ RWA to prop the greedy journal companies if they won’t accomodate us.

So, to recap: Corporations are actively destroying their research units, leaving about a hundred thousand scientists without careers and fending for themselves in little startup companies with extremely high overhead costs.  They need to have access to scientific literature in order to just stay alive.  You can’t do science without them.  And along come the big science journal publishers who want to keep their current business model, charging high licensing and subscription fees or $30 a paper on average for papers that were sent to them at no charge.  Yes, friends, you could be charged $30 for the privilege of downloading your own paper.  But wait!  There’s more.  It’s not good enough that they have exclusive access to the papers in their own journals that they can charge outrageous fees for.  NOW they want the government to stop providing free public access to scientific papers that were the result of NIH research grants.  Yes, Wiley, Elsivier and the ACS want to make sure that no one gets access to the science that you the taxpayer have already paid for unless they pay an exorbitant download fees.

I’m really shocked to find that Carolyn Maloney is co-sponsor to this atrocity.  If she doesn’t know what she is doing to the poor (and I mean that literally) scientists out there, someone should tell her.  She may be one of the persons who is going to set American research, what little is left of it, back even further.  We simply can not afford to keep paying through the nose for literature, especially for information we have already paid for.

She should be ashamed.  And this topic deserves as much attention as SOPA, PIPA and NDAA.  It’s outrageous that science that you have already paid for is going to be held hostage behind a paywall.  We may need an Occupy Science working group to look into this.


30 Responses

  1. Congrats on FOUR years! I keep finding papers dated 2008 around my house. It’s sort of the year my life stopped. This site helped me cope. At last a little hope in Occupy…. Thanks for all you do, RD.

    • Hold on a second. I’m proposing that we start an Occupy Science working group. As far as I know, there isn’t one yet. But I think we need to get on it toot sweet because most occupiers don’t know what’s going on in research today. The problem is that so many of us are trying to find jobs that we’re afraid to put ourselves out there. But that’s a mistake, I think. Because NO ONE is looking out for us right now. Even the ACS, which is supposed to be fighting for our interests is doing nothing except plotting to keep their exclusive right to charge an arma and a leg for a paper from JACS. That’s bizarre, don’t you think? Our professional organization would prefer to soak us for every penny we’ve got than to rejigger its business model so they can sell more content at a reasonable price. Who the hell is going to be able to afford it? Only the big pharmas are going to be able to foot the bill for journals and the rest of us are going to be SOL. That’s just outrageous.

      • Set up a FB page and that will get it going.

        • Omg, Marsha, that group is so off the mark it’s not funny. They’re about as rational as the Christian fundamentalists who are convinced that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. They’re going to kill their own efforts with their blind rage. The big corporations must be delighted. The lady thing they want is occupiers who know what the hell they’re talking about. I just watched some trash video on bovine somatotropin hormone and the level of misinformation was astonishing. As it happens, I know someone who worked on that and the testing for animal hormone is just as thorough as it is for humans. Not only that but the hormone is already present in milk naturally. In other words, before Monsanto or American Cyanamid or FMC, we were already drinking it.
          Just unfortunate. I’m ver disappointed. They need education ASAP or crazy bills like the RWA will slip into law and we won’t know what hit us until it’s too late.
          I posted a comment there but I’m pretty sure they deleted it. Sad, and very, very stupid.

      • BTW, love the occupy science idea. You just need another name, a better one. Occupy Science and Research?

  2. Happy Anniversary! Keep on keeping on…

  3. I may be one of the newest readers here. How many other readers have been here 6 months or less?

  4. Darrell Issa (R-Double Consonants)?

    All the proof I need that Carolyn Baloney is an Obama-crat.

    You know Obama is for anything that Joe And Jane Sixpack have to pay dearly for to obtain, whether it be goods or services. After all he needs his cut for those greens fees.

    • on the other hand we can not totally discount the rights of people to protect their intellectual property. This is how they make their living. With in hours of any movie being released, you can download it from some over seas web site. It is costing not just the rich producers and pampered actors. It is costing writers, lowly contract actors getting union day rates and live on royalties that come in as long as the movie is playing either in theaters or on TV.
      It is also not fair that someone writes and sings a song, has a back up band, pays for studio time, shoots a video and it gets pirated online. Millions of dollars of the product of peoples talent and hard work goes viral for free.
      There has to be a solution. Maybe SOPA is not the answer because it is poorly written or goes too far. Think about it. You wouldn’t like it if it were your paycheck that was being stolen.

  5. A great video!

  6. OMG! 4 Years!! Everything is different since then. My life is totally different. and my view or the future is different. That was before we even dreamed that something like the May 31st meeting could happen. Was it before the Florida Primary? We hadn’t heard about The Math yet. We didn’t realize how corrupt the Democratic party was. So many of us learned about that together here.

    4 Years …. we’l be old enough to vote soon.

    • Katie,

      It was around the time that kos and others sold out to the Obama campaign for access to the conference calls and occasional appearances on msnbc at off hours. They were given their marching orders to ban those people who would not go along with being brain washed. Most of us were banned from kos at about the same time.
      You are right, we had no idea what was coming. How could we know?

  7. RD, did you ever consider teaching University level science? I think you would make a great teacher. You might have to take some methods courses, I don’t know. What I do know is that English profs are a dime a dozen, but good science instructors are not as easy to find.

  8. Happy 4th Anniversary! Thank you, RD and everyone for this oasis of lucid commentary.

  9. seems like only yesterday. 🙂
    Happy 4th Anniversary! 🙂

  10. I hear that the SOPA and PIPA bills are being sent back until the noise dies down. I suspect the same bill will be reprinted in a different font then reintroduced as modified to address the concerns about it if I know our Congress.

    These people are like garden rodents, you have to watch for their damage constantly.

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