Home > Recent News > “Research Works Act” to legally solidify the share of federal funding for the ‘scientific’ contribution of publishing companies

“Research Works Act” to legally solidify the share of federal funding for the ‘scientific’ contribution of publishing companies

by Daniël P. Melters

Previously we brought to your attention the intricacies of how the academic publishing industry makes money. In short, the publishing companies have copyright of all the work published in their journals, even though the research was funded by the public. For the public to read the work they funded, they have to pay the publishers. If you buy an individual article you pay between $20 and $50 per article, which would be $1,67-$4,17 per page for a 12-page article, which includes the 1-2 pages of references at the end of an article.

Things are getting even more crazy if US Congress passes the ‘Research Works Act (HR 3699)‘. This bill will guarantee that the publishing industry has absolute rights of its published content, even though they have done no experiments or manuscript writing to fill up the journals empty pages. How far will this go? Currently, research funded by the National Institutes of Health has to be made publicly available within 12 months after publication, although journals are encouraged to do so at the time of publication. Under the proposed ‘Research Works Act’, this would be illegal. The only way the public can read the research they funded, is if researchers publish their work in Open Access journals, such as the various PLoS journals.

In response to this act, Micheal Eisen, a professor at UC Berkeley, brother of UC Davis’ professor Jonathan Eisen, and co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. This follows after Micheal and Jonathan Eisen complained about this proposed bill on their own blogs (here, here, herehere, here, and here). Jonathan Eisen is even considering an embargo of the AAAS meeting in Vancouver later this year.

If journals add value to a product, this bill might make sense, but this is not the case. So, what do journals add during the publishing step? Fundamentally, they add two things (besides self promotion). They try to assert if the manuscript has the WOW! factor they think their journal represents on the market and they coordinate the peer review process. The results from the latter step also has a big role in determining the former step. Surprisingly enough, the peers who review a manuscript do this for free. They volunteer their time to help these journals. Is this peer review process well managed by the journals? Everyone has heard of numerous cases of scientific misconduct and retracted papers. So the short answer is: mistakes are frequently made. This has been pointed by out in various blogs, including by Michael Nielsen, another advocate for Open Access, who wrote a piece debunking three myths about peer review. These myths are: 1) scientists have always used peer review. 2) peer review is reliable. and 3) peer review is how we determine what’s right and wrong in science. Also, Michael Eisen recently commented on the problems of peer review. The good thing about science is that over time the mistakes are recognized and corrected. Though, this can take many years depending on the mistakes made (or what really is an assumption believed to be fact).

Earlier I already mentioned that buying an individual article is expensive, but what about journal subscriptions? A student subscription to Science is $75/yr or $149/yr for non-students. A Nature subscription is $199/yr and Cell costs $223/yr. These are just three of the top-tier journals. For a scientist to stay up to date, you have to read more than just Nature, Science and Cell, even though these three together will cost you $497/yr as a student in the US, $571/yr as a non-student in the US. Of course you can buy individual articles as well, but these cost you between $20-$50 per article. Rather expensive if you want to read up on the latest findings of say brca1 and brca2, two genes associated with familiar breast cancer. It would be difficult to limit yourself to reading only 5 articles, which would cost you between $100 and $250.

Now these publisher companies want to make it a law that they behold absolute rights about the research published in their journals. Research for which they have done little to nothing to justify such claims. They have not designed any of the experiments. They have not held any of the pipets. They have not analyzed any of the data. They have not written a single letter of the manuscript submitted. They have out-sourced the review of the manuscript for best price possible: free. They have demanded money for the manuscript to be published, extra if you want colour figures. They demand full copyright of your published manuscript. They demand money for you to read your own published work. Now they also want to prevent you from depositing your NIH funded and published research to made available to the public who funded your research.

Can I think of a comparable situation to further highlight the ridiculousness of this bill? Say you are an obstetrician and you helped a baby be delivered. As an obstetrician you have not done much in the process of fertilization (unless of course you are the father), in carrying the baby for ~40 weeks, neither for the development of the fertilized egg to a foetus. Would it make sense to demand ownership of this newborn, as you sort of guided the mother in the delivery process? If you are a publishing company, you would say: “yes, of course!”

What can you do to stop this bill? Call and write your congress representative to urge them to oppose the ‘Research Works Act’ and tell your friends all around the country to do the same thing. Comment on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s request for information (RFI) on public access. The latter option has to be done by Thursday January 12th.

Results from publicly funded research should remain in the public domain, not in the hands of a few publishing companies.


This is the actual text of the proposed bill:


    This Act may be cited as the `Research Works Act’.


    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.


    In this Act:
    (1) AUTHOR- The term `author’ means a person who writes a private-sector research work. Such term does not include an officer or employee of the United States Government acting in the regular course of his or her duties.
    (2) NETWORK DISSEMINATION- The term `network dissemination’ means distributing, making available, or otherwise offering or disseminating a private-sector research work through the Internet or by a closed, limited, or other digital or electronic network or arrangement.
    (3) PRIVATE-SECTOR RESEARCH WORK- The term `private-sector research work’ means an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government (as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States Code), describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a Federal agency and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing. Such term does not include progress reports or raw data outputs routinely required to be created for and submitted directly to a funding agency in the course of research.
Categories: Recent News
  1. Amy Stewart
    January 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Hello, Daniel. I’m Amy Stewart, the science and technology editor for The California Aggie. I’m writing an article about the Research Works Act, and I was wondering if I could interview you about this issue. If you could email me at science@theaggie.org, I would greatly appreciate it.

  2. January 12, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    “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…


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