The Conyers Bill Disaster

So, perhaps you’ve heard about the Conyers bill (“Fair Copyright in Research Works Act”).  There are some emails circulating about this online (I got a forward of one originating with David Yetter), mostly leading back to a post of Lawrence Lessig’s at the Huffington Post.

You can read more details at the Lessig post, but the short version is this:  this bill would make it illegal for any federal agency to require you to cede any copyright privileges to the government in exchange for research funding.  The only current instance of this I know of is that all NIH funded research must be posted on PubMed.  This bill would make it illegal for the NIH to require that, which would be a terrible thing to do.  John Conyers should be ashamed of himself for introducing such a bill, and you should write you congresscritter about it, especially if they’re on the Judiciary Committee (it would be much better if this died in committee).

On the other hand, certain email forwards seem to have gotten it in their heads that this bill would forbid people who get NSF grants from posting on the arXiv, but it sure doesn’t look like the text of the bill could possibly imply that.  Am I right here, or am I somehow misreading things?

On the other other hand, this is something of a big deal, in that it is a big middle finger from all the publishers to even the most mild-mannered open-access advocate.  The message is roughly that the publishers think their profit margins are more important that people dying.  Which is fine;  they’re corporations, that’s how corporations are required to function by law.  It just should make you think twice about whether corporations are a good vehicle for scientific publishing.

Anyways, everybody chill out.  Then call your congresscritter.

EDIT: Right after posting this, I got another forward of an email by David Yetter, saying that he had misunderstood the legislation and that my (still displeasing) interpretation is correct. (Just so we’re clear, that had nothing to do with the post.  It’s just a coincidence.)

3 thoughts on “The Conyers Bill Disaster

  1. Here’s what I think is a clearer description: The bill would re-legalize the practice of keeping all journal papers behind paid-subscription-only barriers. Recent government regulations have required that grant-funded research be published in an open-access manner, and this would reverse that.

    Conyers’ bill doesn’t help researchers much if at all, since they don’t profit from the publication of their papers anyway — at best, it gives researchers more freedom to continue sending their papers to intransigent no-open-access publishers. Who it helps is companies such as Elsevier and Springer that profit from publishing the research of others.

    It’s a bad idea. Write your congrescritter in opposition to it.

  2. The bill would re-legalize the practice of keeping all journal papers behind paid-subscription-only barriers.

    I feel like that’s a misleading formulation (at least, given my understanding of the situation). It was always legal for Springer to keep up a subscription wall around their journals. It was always legal for authors to submit their articles to open-access databases. It’s just that if the paper was supported by NIH money, the author is required to submit to PubMed, regardless of what happens with publishing it. This law would get rid of that rule and forbid all federal agencies from adopting an analogous one.

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