Deconstructing Conyers' ignorance about science

In a previous post I attacked US Representative John Conyers' bill HR 801, The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, which would forbid the government from requiring federal science grant awardees to publish their work where it can be accessed freely by the public. Existing policy for federal grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, carries that requirement... but HR 801 would lift the criterion that federally-funded - that is, taxpayer-funded - scientific research need not see the light of day. There are many open-access scientific publications today, and they're becoming increasingly popular with scientists frustrated by high page charges, interminable publication delays, and closed access to all but a paying few. Academic scientists - the ones who seek federal grants - want to spread the word, not lock it away, but publishers make money by limiting access to information and charging per peek. That's fine for Harry Potter, but science paid for by the public should be publicly accessible. Public libraries don't normally carry peer-reviewed scientific journals, and most university libraries that do carry them, or carry subscriptions for online access to academic journals, are off-limits to people without a university ID.

I'm back once again to attack HR 801, but this time by deconstructing Conyers' own words in defense of his bill. Conyers recently posted on The Huffington Post a rebuttal to criticism of his bill by Stanford law professor Larry Lessig. Conyers' comments on THP reveal a disturbingly uninformed perspective on how science publications work. Most people don't deal closely with peer-reviewed scientific journals, so it's not surprising most people don't understand how they work. But Conyers isn't most people, he's a US Representative with the power to do real harm if given bad information... and in this case he has been. Here is an excerpt from Conyers' THP post, emphasis added by me.
These opponents [of HR 801] argue that scientific journals expend their own, non-federal resources to manage the peer review process, where experts review academic publications. This process is critical because it provides the quality check against incorrect, reckless, and fraudulent science and furthers the overall quality and vigor of modern scientific debate. Journal publishers organize and pay for peer review with the proceeds they receive from the sale of subscriptions to their journals, thereby adding considerable value to the original manuscripts of research scientists.
It's gratifying to see Conyers give lip service to the value of peer review, but he catastrophically misunderstands how peer review actually works. Journal publishers cover the costs of typesetting and physically producing the journals, archiving copies, and organizing library subscriptions, among other things... but they don't pay for peer review. Conyers is wrong. Peer review costs little money, but a lot of time... time spent by the chief Editor of a journal in managing a stable of designated handling editors and associate editors, who oversee the process of sending new manuscripts to peer reviewers, who are typically other scientists working in the same field and are not paid for their reviews. The entire process is a volunteer effort below the level of editor in chief... and usually it's a volunteer job even then. Some journals do have the publisher oversee top-level editorial process, but those are typically journals of low quality, publishing mediocre to bad papers simply to push copy through the assembly line. And even in such "gray literature" peer reviews are performed without compensation. Conyers does not understand the scientific peer-review process. That's not surprising if he's only listening to one side... the publishers' side.
The policy Professor Lessig supports, they argue, would limit publishers' ability to charge for subscriptions since the same articles will soon be publicly available for free.
Non sequitur. Some of the more modern publishers - and many journals run wholly by scientific organizations - embargo new articles for a few months in order to maintain a subscription incentive. Sometimes an independent journal will allow some articles of high anticipated impact to go online for free from day one, while holding a temporary embargo on other papers. An incentive to maximize profits by locking away every single paper in perpetuity - unless a reader pays up - only exists for publishing houses, not for scientific organizations. Yes, it's true that open-access journals limit the ability of Big Pub to charge a maximal price. That's the point. This isn't about the publishers, despite the propaganda Conyers has been fed. It's about the science.
If journals begin closing their doors or curtailing peer review, or foist peer review costs on academic authors (who are already pay from their limited budgets printing costs in some cases), the ultimate harm will be to open inquiry and scientific progress may be severe.
False premise. Publishers do not pay for peer review, because scientists are not paid by anyone to conduct peer review. Scientists devote a part of their time to the review of other scientists' papers because it has to be done and there isn't anyone else who's qualified to do it... including publishers, who wouldn't know a mass spectrometer from a lunchbox. Peer review costs postage and time, and emailing a PDF around doesn't even cost postage. Again, Conyers is misinformed. Frighteningly so.
And the journals most likely to be affected may be non-profit, scientific society based journals. Once again, a policy change slipped through the appropriations process in the dark of night may enhance open access to information, but it may have unintended consequences that are severe. This only emphasizes the need for proper consideration of these issues in open session.
Red herring. The process by which bills enter the legislative stream is irrelevant to their intrinsic, individual merits or faults. Conyers attempts here to misdirect your attention.

Non-profit, scientific-society journals published online do not incur the high costs associated with traditional, old-media journals run by mega-publishers with high overhead, printing and distribution costs. Most journals operate with minimal staffs, rarely more than the editor-in-chief and one or two administrative assistants who are paid by the society in question. Peer review is a volunteer process.
I acknowledge that these are complex issues and that there are important values, strong arguments, and passionate supporters on both sides. And I look forward to the coming debate. But I hope as the discussion moves forward, we can focus on the merits. No one is well served by ad hominem attacks, baseless smears, or a distorted presentation of the facts.
More misdirection. Conyers appears far more concerned about appearing wounded to a sympathetic public, than in constructing a logically sound defense of his indefensible bill. Conyers claims he would prefer to focus on merit. Very well. The merit of dismissing HR 801 is to preserve the public trust by ensuring publicly-funded research finds openly-accessible publication venues. If HR 801 passes, the only beneficiaries will be the largest, most parasitic publishing firms - the ones who refuse to modernize, refuse to compete, refuse to give up an archaic and dying business model based on moving tons of paper around. Others who will benefit from HR 801 include those who use federal grant money to fund purely commercial scientific research... such as scientists who also receive funds from major drug companies. With no requirement to openly publish their results, such individuals are free to exploit the public trust for personal gain. Conyers appears to have no problem with that scenario. I do, and so should you.

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Comment by Sean on March 15, 2009 at 7:34pm
wow. I didn't even know this was happening
Comment by Adam Steele on March 15, 2009 at 4:42pm
Yea! for Open Access publishing. Yea! for freedom of reasearch. If the librarians have anything to say about it, complete open access is around the corner whether or not the publishers like it. Every month another university is creating a repository and educating their faculty on copyright law and how to circumvent work with the publishers so they will be able to publish their work openly a few months or a year after it is in published in a journal. Keep up the fight, we librarians are on you side.



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