More on Conyers and scientific publishing

By Phil Plait | March 11, 2009 11:01 am

There was some controversy over my recent post about scientific publishing and a bill proposed by Representative John Conyers (D-MI) to make it difficult or impossible for scientists to openly publish their work so that it is freely accessible. The way I read the bill, scientists with federal funding would not be able to publish their data openly. However, some commenters disagreed, saying the bill did not do at all what I said it would.

However, Lawrence Lessig — a professor of law at Stanford — was interviewed about this very bill, and his conclusions are very similar to what I originally wrote. Because of this, I will for now stand by my original conclusion: this bill would prevent or make it very difficult for scientists to distribute their work except through very expensive journals, and that this would slow scientific progress due to the lack of open source publication of research. If better evidence comes along, then I am willing to listen, of course.

Here is that interview:

As it stands now, Representative Conyers has posted a rebuttal to Lessig on The Huffington Post. I’ll add that I do think that Lessig’s attacks on Conyers about corruption are strident; I myself said that it’s interesting that Conyers received far more than average donations from the publishing industry, but note that the total amount isn’t much (about $9000).

Lessig has posted a rebuttal to this, and so on it goes. I will continue to read about this as I have time and it progresses.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics

Comments (30)

  1. Joe Meils

    I wonder how this is going to jibe with President Obama’s recent pledge to work on legislation that will free scientific research from being terrorized by politicos? (It was a part of his speech when he dropped the ban on stem cell research funding.)
    The right hand needs to know what the hell the left hand is doing, methinks…

  2. “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

    Sums it up don’t ya think?

  3. Charles Boyer

    ^ Unfortunately, they aren’t idiots. They would be less dangerous if that were so. They are simply folks pandering to their own self-interests, which is far worse.

  4. hhEb09'1

    We could free scientific research from politics entirely by eliminating federal funding, right? :)

  5. We elected a government that promised to manage our lives, because they know best.

    We shouldn’t be surprised when that government decides it knows best.

    The private sector is dead. The notion of the individual is dead.

    Individuals matter only to the extent that they are well placed in large powerful organizations. Learn it, live it, love it.

    Long live the Nanny State.

    Nanny knows best, just shut up and color.

  6. OFF TOPIC: Check Maintenance Status on Shuttle. Ground abort due to fuel leak. :(

  7. BJN

    Oh puhleez. I’m an individual functioning just fine despite signal lights, stop signs, and hiking permits, thank you very much.

    Lessig’s push for open publishing makes sense from too many perspectives to have it be smothered by industry-specific protectionism. Frankly, I doubt that journal publishing alone would be able to drive this legislation. I suspect that the much broader and far better funded publishing and entertainment copyright lobbies have a hand in this.

    Frankly, I’d like to be able to read an old paper that I’ve Googled instead of running into the usual wall of seeing an abstract at a site that only provides access to a paper via a very expensive membership. Beyond the value of open publishing to scientists and researchers, accessible papers would also help seed broader public education and participation in the sciences.

  8. Ed Brayton wrote a pretty decent article on this for the Michigan Messenger here.

  9. To those who would see an end to federal funding because the private sector is obviously the be all, end all – do you really want a world where the only research carried out is that which will lead to private profit? Gimme a break. Government can do decent things as long as you stop persistently voting for rich morons…

  10. Retrogarde

    One of the professors, mr Richard A. Muller, who came up with the Nemesis proposal in the 80′s, in an excellent series of lectures. In this one he tells about Nemesis from about 0:30. Be sure to watch the whole series though, it’s worth it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERy-MTfgulc&playnext_from=SPL&feature=SeriesPlayList&p=095393D5B42B2266&index=24

  11. Charles Boyer

    “The private sector is dead. The notion of the individual is dead.”

    Exaggerate much?

  12. “The private sector is dead. The notion of the individual is dead.”

    Are you done being cynical now? Would you care to join the grown ups and work to solve a few problems? Does anyone here know whether or not Obama has the authority to overturn this bill if passed? I honestly do not know, but I agree with Phil about the ramifications of this.

  13. Cheyenne

    I’d bet a penny this one never even makes it out of committee. And if it happens to I seriously doubt it would survive a floor vote.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    When the politicians came for the open publishing,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a publisher.

    When they locked up the science data,
    I remained silent;
    I was not an experimenter.

    When they came for the tool makers,
    I did not speak out;
    I was not a technician.

    When they came for the theorists,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a theorist.

    When they came for my work,
    there was no one left to speak out.

  15. @Richard Wolford: Since the Democrats have the majority, I don’t think it will get that far, but he can always veto it if it gets to him. If it comes to that, it’s doubtful that it will manage to pass Congress the second time required to pass a bill without Presidential approval.

  16. Connor

    What they don’t seem to realise, and this goes for a lot of politicians I think, is that we live in a connected world now. All this bill would do would be to give scientists in America problems. The rest of the world would be unaffected. Suggests to me that Mr Conyers doesn’t really ‘get’ the intertoobs and has a rather insular view of the world.

  17. @Senethior459

    I hope you’re right, and if it does get to the level of the president then I would expect him to veto it. I’m not much of a political process guy which is why I asked. I’ve little doubt that Obama would chuckle as he stamped “veto” on it :)

  18. George

    Another interesting topic, Phil. But I wonder if your readers would be more interested in your thoughts, skeptical or not, regarding a purported comet encounter with North America at the end of the last Ice Age. Over 3000 other blogs have found it interesting!: http://snipurl.com/dmdqp

    Thanks for taking a look — and stay on Mr. Conyers!

  19. MadScientist

    I always enjoy reading Lawrence Lessig’s posts; somehow I’d become delinquent and missed reading his blog for over a year now.

    There will always be apologists for special interest groups who say things like “you must be wrong, no one would really do something so evil, would they?” – some apologists would simply be ignorant and naive while others would be actively promoting the special interest groups.

    In this case Rep. Conyers is supporting the special interest groups and his ‘rebuttal’ dodges all relevant issues and instead offers up straw men to play with. For example, his “I’ve done all sorts of other good things, how dare you say this is wrong” approach which is popular with all classes of scoundrels. All US citizens should demand that the results of publicly funded research (even if the public contribution is $1 vs other sources of, say, $5M) should be made as widely available as possible and for as little cost as possible. If people don’t want to make research results readily accessible and affordable, then they shouldn’t get a cent of public funds. Yeah, DARPA, I’m looking at you too. Once upon a time publications from government offices used to be available cheaply (for example, publications from the US Department of Agriculture) and this was done for a variety of (mostly indirect) reasons, including encouraging people to take part in the functioning of government and also to promote development of best practices throughout industries. That moron Conyers really wants to put the brakes on innovation in the USA. I say send the bum to Zimbabwe.

  20. MadScientist

    @Connor:

    The bill will affect the rest of the world as well, not only scientists in the USA. As a nation, the USA is one of the largest contributors to scientific research; if publications are restricted by this silly bill then other researchers around the world are also deprived of benefits. Don’t imagine that the US scientists will be allowed to public in an alternative journal in addition to the paid-for journals they are forced to publish in.

    If you look around, there are a number of online only scientific journals which are refereed by some of the best scientists in their respective fields and which are available to anyone at no cost. Scientists get to share information, the review process is quicker than with the usual paper journals (don’t confuse speed with lack of criticism of the submitted work though), and best of all you don’t have to pay a hefty subscription fee. Of course organizations are funding the hosting of the information; operating such free journals is not a cost-free exercise.

  21. Craig

    Speaking as a researcher who is frequently frustrated by the inaccessibility of relevant scientific publications:

    We are currently facing a large collection of potential global catastrophes (climate change is the most obvious, but it isn’ t the only one) that effective scientific research provides the only realistic hope of averting.

    It is entirely within our technical abilities to make _all_ scientific papers freely available in a single online database. It wouldn’t even be particularly hard. Such a database would be of immense benefit to researchers and students everywhere.

    The only reason that we can’t do it is because of ridiculous copyright bullshit from the more commercial parts of the journal industry.

    Can we really afford to let private greed cripple science right now?

  22. Craig

    Speaking as a researcher who is frequently frustrated by the inaccessibility of relevant scientific publications:

    We are currently facing a large collection of potential global catastrophes (climate change is the most obvious, but it isn’ t the only one) that effective scientific research provides the only realistic hope of averting.

    It is entirely within our technical abilities to make _all_ scientific papers freely available in a single online database. It wouldn’t even be particularly hard. Such a database would be of immense benefit to researchers and students everywhere.

    The only reason that we can’t do it is because of ridiculous copyright territorialism from the more commercial parts of the journal industry.

    Can we really afford to let private greed cripple science right now?

    (edited to remove some justified but uncivil language; sorry Phil…)

  23. Nemo

    I lost some respect for Mr. Conyers on reading Phil’s initial story about this, but I lost a lot more reading Conyers’ own reply. Does he really think he’s doing himself a favor with that piece? It’s mostly about him taking umbrage, with little real defense of the bill (I assume because little defense can be raised), and most of that is about how he didn’t like the manner in which open access got passed in the first place. It’s appalling.

  24. Todd W.

    Here’s an idea. Why not, as researchers, band together to create a reputable, free journal in which to publish, and just avoid the more commercial “money, money, money…mmm, num num num num num” journals? Y’know, create the database that Craig suggested. Getting consensus may be difficult, but I think it could be done.

  25. Xerxes

    Again, if you only listen to the over-the-top “OMG, they’re banning the Internets!” posturing from the beginning of the video, you might miss the carefully worded description of the actual effect of the bill that Lessig gives at 1:46, which I quote:

    “to basically forbid the biggest funder of research from conditioning those funds on making the work available freely”.

    A terrible idea, yes, but NOT the same as forbidding open access publishing.

  26. GT

    Not only the publications but the source data for the analysis and conclusions should be readily available for verification and replication. Science only works when replication is possible; otherwise we depend on the unsubstantiated word of authorities. It’s dangerous to trust those whose skill has not been proven and whose ambitions are not checked. So lock up the information only if you want no reliable way to know the truth.

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