H.R. 801 - the Lessig-Conyers fight around Open Access

The last few days have seen a bit of open warfare on the "open access" frontlines, surrounding a bill currently being reviewed in the house, H.R. 801, the "Fair Copyright in Research Works Act", which rescinds the NIH's open-access mandate. That mandate requires authors of papers on research funded by the NIH to make a copy of their article publicly available 12 months after publication, and has been in place for a few years now. I haven't heard that the mandate has done any significant harm to science publishers, or made much difference to accessibility of scientific research articles, but I haven't really been following closely and the bio-medical literature is not my speciality, certainly.

Anyway, Larry Lessig, one of the people I deeply respect particularly for his work on Creative Commons, co-wrote a scathing attack on the bill, at least indirectly impugning Judiciary chairman John Conyers through their discussion of publisher contributions to members of the House.

I also deeply respect John Conyers - as apparently does Lessig (after the weekend at least) - anyway, Conyers responded, and his main points seem to be:

  • how dare you attack my integrity :-)
  • the mandate constitutes a change to copyright, and should have been debated in the Judiciary committee - that's what's happening now with this bill
  • open access has negative consequences and may mean the end of peer review as we know it, which has been so critical to moving science forward

That last is of course the standard publishers' line, variants of which I've pushed myself at least in the past. There really is a serious issue here, and the Open Access advocates are a little too glib in their responses. Witness Michael Eisen, Peter Suber, and Lessig himself, in reply.

All of them echo Stevan Harnad's claim that if libraries do cancel subscriptions, they will have windfall savings available to spend on peer review for open access journals. Except, that doesn't seem like how university libraries work - if they are canceling subscriptions, it's because they have no money for them because their budgets have been cut or limited; there will be no windfall that won't vanish into other desperate needs.

We need something in between these two positions. I have deep reservations about Open Access, at least all the approaches that have been tried up to now (with the possible exception of the sponsorship model one of our journals uses). But it also seems clear there is deep resentment within the scientific community about the way the current publishing system works, and the lack of simple access to the wide corpus of scientific work by the general population is a real problem. I have experienced it myself, wanting to read various articles in journals our office doesn't have a subscription to. It's really limiting, and there has to be a solution. What is it? I don't think anybody has come up with the right approach yet.

Anyway, in the meantime, I'll enjoy the fight over H.R. 801. I don't think the outcome of this particular discussion will make a lot of difference though.