Scientists' Victory Over the Research Works Act Is Like the SOPA Defeat

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 28 2012 12:23 PM

Scientists' Victory Over the Research Works Act Is Like the SOPA Defeat

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Rep. Carolyn Maloney was a co-sponsor of the Research Works Act

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Riis Settlement House

The two co-sponsors of a controversial bill involving the publication of academic research announced yesterday that they would allow it to lie fallow.

The best that can be said of the zombiefied bill, called the Research Works Act, is that it was refreshingly short and straightforward. The RWA would have prohibited federal agencies from requiring that research they fund be made publicly available. When Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced the RWA in December, it provoked the scientific community. By and large, scientists saw the law benefiting only major scholarly publishers. One of the RWA’s major proponents was Elsevier, one of the most prominent such publishers—which  also happens to be one of Maloney's major campaign contributors. But Elsevier, too, withdrew its support for the act yesterday, though in its non-withdrawal withdrawal, the company said it still supported the aims of the act, though not the act itself.

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The defeat is a victory for the many scientists who raised the alarm about RWA, particularly the some 7,500 researchers who signed on to a boycott of Elsevier. In some ways, the RWA battle was a bit like the SOPA protests, writ smaller.

Since April 2008, the National Institutes of Health (one of the largest federal funders of scientific research) has required that research stemming from its grants be made publicly available. (More on the history of public and open access is available here.) The virtue of such a mandate is that it allows research papers to be made accessible in a central database. Some publishers, like Elsevier, oppose such mandates out of concern for their profits; however, the debate is complicated, because an increasing number of scientific journals are funded by author contributions rather than reader payments.

Earlier this month, a bill that would expand the NIH requirement to almost all federal funded research (a direct counterpoint to the RWA) was introduced by Rep. Mike Doyle. For now, there is no action planned on Doyle's bill, either.

Passage of the RWA was always unlikely. The same applies to Doyle's proposal. But Elsevier's, Maloney’s, and Issa's backtracking may indicate a shift in which way the wind is blowing in the ongoing debate over open-access research.

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Konstantin Kakaes is a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the e-book The Pioneer Detectives: Did a Distant Spacecraft Prove Einstein and Newton Wrong? Follow him on Twitter.