Legislation to Bar Public-Access Requirement on Federal Research Is Dead

February 27, 2012

The science-publishing giant Elsevier pulled its support on Monday from the controversial Research Works Act, hours before the bill's co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives declared the legislation dead.

The bill, HR 3699, would have prevented agencies of the federal government from requiring public access to federally subsidized research. In a statement released on Monday morning, the publisher reiterated its opposition to government mandates even as it backed away from the bill. On Monday afternoon, the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican of California, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat of New York, issued a statement of their own saying that they would not push for action on the bill after all.

"As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open-access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future," the Issa-Maloney statement said. "The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid. This conversation needs to continue, and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate."

Before the news broke that the bill was dead, open-access advocates credited a growing scholarly boycott of Elsevier for the publisher's change of course. But Elsevier said its shift on the legislation was a response to feedback from the scholars who continue to work with it.

"While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Works Act itself," the publisher said. "We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders."

Effect of a Boycott

More than 7,400 scholars so far have signed an online petition, the Cost of Knowledge, inspired by the mathematician Timothy Gowers and organized by Tyler Neylon, who has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from New York University and is a co-founder of Zillabyte, a big-data startup. The signers come from many disciplines, but mathematicians and biologists have made the strongest showing.

The boycotters say they will not edit, contribute to, and/or review for Elsevier journals. They object to what they call "exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals," to how Elsevier markets bundled journal subscriptions to libraries, and to its support for anti-public-access legislation.

Boycott organizers and access advocates celebrated Monday's news. "I see this as a victory won by popular awareness and support," Mr. Neylon said in an e-mail.

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said the boycott had helped spur Elsevier's turnabout. "You don't get almost 8,000 scientists saying 'We think this is a lousy idea' so vocally without taking that seriously," she said.

Alicia Wise, Elsevier's director of universal access, played down the boycott's effect. "It's something that we're clearly aware of," she said. But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. "Those are the voices we have been listening to," she said.

'Still a Bit Suspect'

If Elsevier hopes that renouncing the controversial bill will make the boycott go away, it's likely to be disappointed. "Elsevier's sincerity is still a bit suspect," Mr. Neylon said.

"I think the boycott or, at very least, the solidarity and commitment of the research community will continue to push for more-serious changes in the direction of open access," he said. "Ultimately, it is up to those who keep publishers in business to decide what they will do."

Mr. Neylon would like to see the rise of more open journals' publishing platforms. "In practical, tech-friendly fields like computer science and math, I think we are very close to these changes, which is an additional motivation for the community to put effort into bringing about change," he said. "I'm concerned that other fields, such as biology/medicine, may be more entrenched in a profit-supportive culture, so that it may take much longer to realize widespread support of open access there."

Ms. Wise said Elsevier wanted to be part of the conversation about creative models of scholarly access. For instance, "there's a broad discourse right now about how data sets can be made more broadly accessible," she said. "We're quite keen on playing a constructive role there."

The company issued an open letter to the mathematics community on Monday, addressing changes it says it will make to its pricing and access arrangements. "We want to stress that this is just the beginning," the letter said.

Meanwhile, attention has shifted to another proposed bill: the reintroduced Federal Research Public Access Act, which would require public access. Elsevier will "continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation," the publisher's statement said.

Asked about the reintroduced bill, Ms. Wise said she expected that "a broad spectrum of different types of publishers will have some concerns" about it.

For now, she said, "what we are really trying to do is create a better atmosphere and environment" for conversations about access. "If this move back from RWA will help us all work together better, than that's a good thing."