The Research Works Act, currently awaiting decision in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives, seeks to keep federal agencies funded by taxpayers from permitting the distribution of “private-sector research works” without the consent of the publisher. However, the bill’s definition of private-sector research works include scientific studies funded by taxpayers, as long as the journal made some kind of contribution.
The only contribution journals make after accepting a paper are finding scientists to peer review the paper before final publication, often not even compensating these peers for their time. Then, the scientific journal is allowed to copyright and take ownership of the paper, almost always requiring a steep payment from those who want to access and read the paper.
Essentially, taxpayers are paying for research twice: once to conduct the study, and again to access the results. This could lead to a system where everyone pays for research, but only the wealthiest institutions may be able to afford to read the results.
In an era of free access to many resources over the internet, solidifying control in the hands of journal publishers is counter to the concept of free knowledge, particularly since this bill includes research paid for by taxpayers.
Journal publishers already have a great deal of control over how much is charged for access to papers, and some journals are prohibitively expensive. UC Davis currently has access to about 50,000 academic journals, and it would be disappointing to see that decrease.
The country is in a budget crisis already, and the legislators are the last people we want to see making decisions regarding access to public knowledge. As UC Davis tries to find cost-cutting measures, expensive journal subscriptions may be left by the wayside. If this bill passes and solidifies cost control in the hands of journal publishers, the journals have two options: Either they cater to the wealthy, or they make access cheaper. Highly influential journals like Nature are already on the way to establishing the second option by creating open access versions of their journals on their websites.
Open access to journals is becoming the future of academic research and a trajectory we would like to see in all academic journals. Privatizing some research is reasonable, but if the public paid for it, the public should easily be able to see it without jumping through corporate hoops.