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The Sciences

Rep. Conyers wants science to be secret... or you will pay

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMarch 6, 2009 8:09 PM

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There are some things science needs to survive, and to thrive: eager, hardworking scientists; a grasp of reality and a desire to understand it; and an open and clear atmosphere to communicate and discuss results. That last bit there seems to be having a problem. Communication is key to science; without it you are some nerd tinkering in your basement. With it, the world can learn about your work and build on it. Recently, government-sponsored agencies like NIH have moved toward open access of scientific findings. That is, the results are published where anyone can see them, and in fact (for the NIH) after 12 months the papers must be publicly accessible. This is, in my opinion (and that of a lot of others, including a pile of Nobel laureates) a good thing. Astronomers, for example, almost always post their papers on Astro-ph, a place where journal-accepted papers can be accessed before they are published. John Conyers (D-MI) apparently has a problem with this. He is pushing a bill through Congress that will literally ban the open access of these papers, forcing scientists to only publish in journals. This may not sound like a big deal, but journals are very expensive. They can cost a fortune: The Astrophysical Journal costs over $2000/year, and they charge scientists to publish in them! So this bill would force scientists to spend money to publish, and force you to spend money to read them. Why would Conyers do this? Interestingly, if you look at the bill sponsors, you find that they received twice as much money on average in donations from journal publishers than Congresscritters who don't sponsor the bill -- though to be fair, the total amount is not large. Still, Conyers got 4 times as much. Interesting. Ironically, this bill is called The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, which is much like the Clean Air Clear Skies Act or the Patriot Act, in that it does exactly the opposite of what its name says. This bill is not fair, it puts a burden on scientists and keeps research from being publicly accessible as it should be. I myself rely on things like Astro-ph to do my reporting here; it could become illegal to post papers there for federally-sponsored scientists if this bill is passed. You can read more about this at Financial Times, Earlham College, and at Lawrence Lessig's blog. I think I have some phone calls to make.

Tip o' the etaoin shrdlu to Tim Farley.

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