Why Is Open-Internet Champion Darrell Issa Supporting an Attack on Open Science?

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Congressman Darrell Issa has received a lot of positive press for his criticism of SOPA, the anti-piracy bill that has provoked an outpouring of anger across the web. And rightly so -- Issa has been one of the key voices in calling highlighting SOPA's dangers and offering, with Senator Ron Wyden, an alternative piece of legislation called OPEN. Moreover, Issa has pushed initiatives such as "Project Madison," a platform for crowdsourcing legislation and an interactive livestream for the committee he chairs. And, to top things off, his website devotes its top spot to his Open initiative, proclaiming, "First, Americans have a right benefit from what they've created. And second, Americans have a right to an open internet." Here's how it looks:

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All of this makes his support for a new bill, the Research Works Act, incomprehensible. That bill would prohibit all federal agencies from putting any privately published articles into an online database, even -- and this is the kicker -- those articles based on research funded by the public if they have received "any value-added contribution, including peer review or editing" from a private publisher. This is a direct attack on the National Institutes of Health's PubMed Central, the massive free online repository of articles resulting from research funded with NIH dollars. Similar bills have been introduced twice before, in 2008 and 2009, and have failed both times. (Letters from universities and libraries opposing the 2009 bill can be found here.)

Unsurprisingly, the bill is supported by the Association of American Publishers, a trade group that has long had issue with NIH's public-access policy, which requires authors who receive any NIH funding to contribute their work to PubMed Central within 12 months of publication. As Paul Courant, the University of Michigan Librarian wrote of the 2008 iteration of the bill, the AAP's claim that the "Government does not fund peer-reviewed journal articles -- publishers do" is simply "not true." He wrote:

The NIH spends over $28 billion in taxpayer money annually to fund research. Researchers write articles about their findings, and their peers review those articles, without compensation from publishers. Without the research, there would be nothing to publish. Largely due to historical accident, publishers manage the peer review process, helping journal editors to badger referees into reviewing articles, generally for no pay. The value of the scientific expertise that goes into refereeing dwarfs that of the office expenses incurred by publishers in managing the process. The referees' salaries are paid by universities and research institutes, not by publishers. Basically, we have a system in which the public pays for the research, the universities pay for the refereeing, the publishers pay for office work to coordinate the refereeing, and also for some useful editing. Then the publishers turn around and sell the results back to the universities and to the public who bore almost all of the costs in the first place.

The people of the United States pay good money to learn about the world. It would be a travesty if Congress decided that the interests of a few publishers were more important than the research investments of the American public, and that's exactly what this bill would do.

What is that reminiscent of? Oh yes, it's Darrell Issa's avowal on his website that Americans have "a right to benefit from what they've created."

In response to our request for comment, his office provided us with a statement saying, "Publicly funded research is and must continue to be absolutely available to the public. We must also protect the value added to publicly funded research by the private sector and ensure that there is still an active commercial and non-profit research community. The bill has been introduced to ensure that the intellectual property rights of commercial and non-profit journal publishers are not violated by government regulators disseminating their privately owned articles for free." Congressman Issa wants to have it both ways -- make the research available *and* protect private publishers -- but this bill only furthers one of those goals, and it's the latter.

Tom Allen, the CEO and president of the AAP explained his support for the bill, which Issa introduced in December with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York, saying that it "ensures the sustainability of this industry." Because, of course, that's what's important here. Or not, as Microsoft Researcher and all-around awesome tech thinker danah boyd ranted on her blog in December. Boyd wrote:

The scholarly publishing industry used to offer a service. It used to be about making sure that knowledge was shared as broadly as possible to those who would find it valuable using the available means of distribution: packaged paper objects shipped through mail to libraries and individuals. It made a profit off of serving an audience. These days, the scholarly publishing industry operates as a gatekeeper, driven more by profits than by the desire to share information as widely as possible. It stopped innovating and started resting on its laurels. And the worst part about it? Scholars have bent over and let that industry continuously violate them and the university libraries that support them.

In the last few decades, a new tool for information distribution has emerged: the internet. People can share over long distances with unprecedented speed. And the cost for sharing 1,000 copies of something isn't any greater than sharing 1. Some scholarly publishing institutions have embraced this and started experimenting with new ways to leverage existing tools to maintain their mission of informing broad audiences. But many more have resented this development bitterly, working hard to tighten their reins and maintain their turf. They've become the perennial Scrooge, munching on scholars' ideas to turn Christmas into a pile of coal.

And that's just it. If the goal is protecting the publishing industry, this bill's a winner. But for those interested in improving access to scientific research, they should stay far, far away.

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NB: For an excellent profile of Issa, published long before these particular legislative battles, check out Ryan Lizza's New Yorker portrait from last January.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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