Digital Destruction in Scientific Publishing: Why This Scientist Supports the Research Works Act (HR 3699)

January 18, 2012

Steve Jobs described the textbook business as an $8 billion a year industry "ripe for digital destruction." The scientific publication business resembles the textbook industry in many ways, including lack of value-creation Jobs was referring to. The Research Works Act (HR 3699) is the scientific publication industry's surest path to digital destruction. Every scientist who cares about the future of scientific communication should support it.

Yes, I'm encouraging support for this bill, and no, I'm not being ironic. Read on to find out why.

The Slow Decline of the Scientific Publication Business

The advent of desktop publishing and the Web has utterly disrupted the business model of scientific publishers. Before these technologies were widely available, publishers added tremendous value to the scientific publication process through editing, typesetting, peer-review, aggregation of content, printing onto paper, distribution, archival, and imprimatur.

With the exception of imprimatur, a key concept discussed below, nothing scientific publishers are currently doing today adds any value to the process that can't be cheaply (and increasingly - freely) obtained elsewhere.

At a time in which scientific publishers are adding less and less value to the process, you might think that journal prices would be decreasing as well. Instead, the opposite has happened with journal prices rising faster than the rate of inflation for many years running. Simultaneously, library budgets are being repeatedly cut due to lackluster public funding for science and a multi-year economic slump.

Those who have been paying attention know that a process of culling the weakest of the traditional scientific journals has been underway for the last ten years as research libraries are squeezed between the irresistible forces of shrinking funds and rising costs.

NIH's Public Access Policy

Partly in reaction to the declining availability of scientific research papers brought on by declining library budgets and unending journal price increases, NIH was authorized to take action. HR 2764, a large spending bill containing a tiny section that became the NIH Public Access Policy, was signed into law in 2007 by then-president George W. Bush. Director of NIH was granted new powers to make scientific publication more widely accessible:

SEC. 218. The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.

Publishers faced a dilemma: forbid deposition of manuscripts or risk losing content? For the most part, they relented and allowed deposition. For example, the American Chemical Society conformed to the new policy by granting its authors a special exception allowing them to deposit manuscripts into PubMed Central. According the the current version of that policy, an ACS author can comply with the federal regulation in three ways:

  • The ACS deposits the final, published article on the author's behalf, for immediate open availability via the ACS AuthorChoice fee-based option. [cost: $1,000 - $3,000]
  • The author deposits the peer-reviewed manuscript, accepted for publication but prior to ACS' copy editing and production, with NIH, for open availability 12 months after publication.
  • ACS deposits on behalf of the author the peer-reviewed manuscript, accepted for publication but prior to ACS' copy editing and production, with NIH, for open availability 12 months after publication.

The Research Works Act

HR 3699 is a very short bill aimed at reversing the NIH Public Access Policy (full text). Its key provisions are contained in Section 2:

No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that-- (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

According to the definitions included in the bill, 'private-sector work' means any work created by a non-employee of the federal government. A scientist at a public research university receiving NIH funding is more likely than not considered to be producing a 'private-sector research work.'

The research works act is supported by the Association of American Publishers, whose membership includes the American Chemical Society.

Clearly, the intent of this bill is to dismantle the NIH Public Access Policy and to close off a source of content distribution publishers find unfair.

Imprimatur: Still Worth Big Bucks

Any scientist who has been an active participant in scientific publication as an author, reviewer, and consumer recognizes that the only remaining value added by scientific publishers today is imprimatur. Imprimatur is the implied endorsement received by authors who publish in certain scientific journals, particularly in those that earned a high level of prestige during the pre-digital period of publication scarcity.

Ironically, imprimatur remains so valuable in science that it has kept numerous publishers afloat despite wave upon wave digital destruction being visited on sister industries such as book publication and newspapers.

But imprimatur can lose its luster, particularly in an environment in which fewer and fewer scientist can actually read the publications appearing in 'high-impact' journals. Prestige counts for nothing in science if your peers can't read your papers. Nevertheless, that's where scientific publication is heading.

This is why you must support HR 3699 if you care about the future of scientific publication.

Embrace Digital Destruction

Currently, NIH's Public Access Policy is the only means available for many scientists seeking to access key scientific works. Removing this government subsidy will permit the natural process of digital destruction run its course.

As scientist continue to lose access to prestigious, old-guard scientific publications through unending cost-increases and library budget cuts, they will be forced to seek alternatives. Initially, they will be looking for alternatives as consumers of scientific papers, a point supported by the widespread enthusiasm for the NIH Public Access Policy among the scientific community.

But as more and more publishers are bankrupted by their own inability to profitably innovate, scientists will be forced to consider alternatives as authors as well. At this point, the decaying scientific publication model we know today will be finally dead and a new era will have begun.

Attempts to artificially prop up the status quo through legislation and litigation, no matter how well-intended, will only delay the digital destruction of the old guard in scientific publishing.


We as scientist have nobody to blame but ourselves for the mess that scientific publication has become. If we lack the courage to risk career setbacks by publishing in 'third-tier' open access journals, experimenting with open science using the many free tools the Web offers, or boycotting old-guard publishers, then we must wait patiently for digital destruction to break this ridiculous cycle for us.