You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Access

(Updated: I failed to include a good passionate post by Kevin Zelnio, added below. Sorry, Kevin!)

As probably many of you know, I’ve been out of work since summer, and only recently began a part-time freelance writing gig. Being out of the academic loop has really hurt, and not just financially: colleges and universities have library access to journals, lots of ’em. However, if I want to write an article like this one on exoplanets orbiting binary stars, I need to get papers from Nature or Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences or other journals. To download and print many of these papers, I would have to pay relatively large access fees: $30 is not unusual for a journal article.

I’m not saying this to get sympathy: my job at Ars Technica gets me the papers I need to write those particular articles, though my intrepid editor John Timmer. However, for my research or this blog, I don’t have the access. In fact, I don’t have electronic access to one of my own papers, and haven’t since 2005. (Again, I have a paper copy of it, and can get more legal copies if I really need them.) My other papers can be found on the arXiv, a free preprint database for physics and a few other fields currently hosted by the Cornell University library. However, these are not precisely the same as the published versions (though any difference is in formatting, not content). For my most recent paper, which I wrote about yesterday, we chose to publish in PLoS ONE, an open-access journal: you can download and print our paper for free, even if you aren’t affiliated with a university.

In this context, I’m more than a little concerned about the two problematic pieces of legislation in the United States: the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA)/ProtectIP and the Research Works Act. Others have written eloquently about the damage these two bills will do to working scientists, but also to the general public:

  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation lays out the problems with SOPA/ProtectIP, with information on contacting your representatives (if you live in the US).
  • Why Interlibrary Loan (ILL) isn’t a real solution to the problems caused by lack of access, by librarian Christina Pikas. (As an aside, and carrying on the Beastie Boys theme, is there a library blog titled “Licensed to ILL” yet?)
  • The Research Works Act ends up making taxpayers pay for research twice over, explains Janet Stemwedel.
  • Public Library of Science (PLoS) cofounder Michael B. Eisen argues passionately for total public access in the New York Times (and the article, unlike many other NYT columns, is open access!).
  • Why much of academic publishing is a racket, by Daniel Shoup.
  • Added: Another independent scientist, Kevin Zelnio, writes fervently against restriction of access.
Will the arXiv survive SOPA? Will independent scientists like me afford to work at all anymore? Will any of us?

2 responses to “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Access”

  1. See:
    “Research Works Act H.R.3699:
    The Private Publishing Tail Trying To Wag The Public Research Dog, Yet Again”


    The US Research Works Act (H.R.3699): “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.”

    Translation and Comments:

    “If public tax money is used to fund research, that research becomes “private research” once a publisher “adds value” to it by managing the peer review.”

    [Comment: Researchers do the peer review for the publisher for free, just as researchers give their papers to the publisher for free, together with the exclusive right to sell subscriptions to it, on-paper and online, seeking and receiving no fee or royalty in return].

    “Since that public research has thereby been transformed into “private research,” and the publisher’s property, the government that funded it with public tax money should not be allowed to require the funded author to make it accessible for free online for those users who cannot afford subscription access.”

    [Comment: The author’s sole purpose in doing and publishing the research, without seeking any fee or royalties, is so that all potential users can access, use and build upon it, in further research and applications, to the benefit of the public that funded it; this is also the sole purpose for which public tax money is used to fund research.]”

    H.R. 3699 misunderstands the secondary, service role that peer-reviewed research journal publishing plays in US research and development and its (public) funding.

    It is a huge miscalculation to weigh the potential gains or losses from providing or not providing open access to publicly funded research in terms of gains or losses to the publishing industry: Lost or delayed research progress mean losses to the growth and productivity of both basic research and the vast R&D industry in all fields, and hence losses to the US economy as a whole.

    What needs to be done about public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research?

    The minimum policy is for all US federal funders to mandate (require), as a condition for receiving public funding for research, that: (i) the fundee’s revised, accepted refereed final draft of (ii) all refereed journal articles resulting from the funded research must be (iii) deposited immediately upon acceptance for publication (iv) in the fundee’’s institutional repository, with (v) access to the deposit made free for all (OA) immediately (no OA embargo) wherever possible (over 60% of journals already endorse immediate gratis OA self-archiving), and at the latest after a 6-month embargo on OA.

    It is the above policy that H.R.3699 is attempting to make illegal…

  2. […] out my blog today, though many others have decided to do so. Nevertheless, I fully support the protests against SOPA and PIPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act in the US House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual […]

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