Phil Plait recently posted on his Bad Astronomy blog about the latest Congressional creep to try and slam their boot heel in the face of science. This time it's Representative John Conyers (D-MI), with whom I am disgusted to share a state. Conyers is sponsoring a bill that would effectively muzzle open access and free exchange of publicly-funded scientific research in the US. Yes, really.

I recommend reading Phil's blog post and the embedded reference material. I won't reproduce all that material here, but I think it's important to recap because of the incredible threat this bill poses to the future of scientific innovation and exploration in the US.

Conyers' bill, named with Orwellian sliminess The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (HR 801), is to fairness what W's infamous Clear Skies Initiative was to clear skies... a deliberate lie. Conyers' bill declares that the federal government cannot provide grant funds to support scientific research - funds that come from your federal taxes - and also ask that grantees make their results publicly and freely available. Essentially, this bill would mandate that publicly-funded scientific research in the US need not give anything back to the nation that funded it. The details are complex, apparently even for copyright lawyers, but the gist of this despicable bill leaves the public out of the loop of scientific innovation that the public paid for. And did I mention who's supporting FCRWA? If you guessed big, rich publishing houses, you'd be correct. The Association of American Publishers desperately wants this bill to become law, and it is very important to the future of our country that they not get their way.

I publish my work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I've served on the governing board of a major international scientific organization in my discipline (The Geochemical Society), as editor for a major professional newsletter in my field, and on the editorial board of two international peer-reviewed journals. I've also worked closely with representatives of several big scientific publishers.... so I have some experience with attempts by Big Publishing to squelch interest in online, open-access journals. I've sat in board meetings where open-access electronic publication was discussed, where scientists like myself recognized and advocated strongly for journals moving to a cheaper, faster and more efficient all-electronic format, only to have reps from Big Pub sit there and relentlessly carp about how it couldn't be done.... or rather, how their paymasters didn't want it to be done.

In the old days, the only venues where scientists could publish were physical paper journals put out by big publishing houses. Paper is expensive, heavy, and must be physically shipped to readers and libraries. In the old days Big Publishing offered copy editing, printing, binding and distribution services at a premium, which only the most well-funded scientists and universities could afford. Often Big Pub would waive publication charges for poorer researchers, but not always.

Enter the internet. With the web, disseminating your research is a lot easier. Today there are lots of online peer-reviewed journals with cheap or free reading access to anyone with a web browser. Instead of a heavy (dense, kaolinite-impregnated, shining white paper), slow (publishing a paper in a print journal can take years, literally), expensive (billed to contributing authors at hundreds of dollars a page) paper journal, online publications today offer PDF files that move at the speed of light. Online journals can be produced with minimal staff and minimal cost, and can be managed by non-profit, professional scientific organizations with a direct interest in disseminating science as widely as possible. In contrast, Big Pub's business model depends on secret articles, hefty charges, and locked access.

Big Pub isn't all bad... many companies are actively experimenting with cheaper online publication, streamlining their businesses to fit the modern electronic world, and offering free access to older papers. But some just don't get it, and clearly pine for the days when they could command top dollar as the only game in town. Well, sorry, but those days are over. Today it's possible to write a paper, send it to peer-review at a respected electronic journal, and have it available to the world in a few weeks. That scares Big Pub, in a big way.

At one time, making buggy whips was big business in the US. When cars entered the scene, horse-drawn buggies vanished, but today we don't have laws sponsored by an obsolete, irrelevant buggy-whip industry requiring people to buy a buggy whip with every new car. Today the world of gigantic science-publishing houses is as relevant to the dissemination of knowledge as buggy whips are to starting your Prius. But instead of quietly fading away, Big Pub wants to be kept on life support at public expense. Like the RIAA, Big Pub is swiftly evolving from a useful service to a parasite with delusions of relevance. They're dying, but only because they're too stupid and greedy to live. In the words of James T. Kirk, "let them die."

If you care about keeping the science you paid for open, freely-available and publicly-accessible, write your Congressperson and demand they oppose HR 801.

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