Almost four weeks ago I noted the once-a-Congress introduction of legislation to roll back the National Institutes of Health (NIH) public access policy, where research funded by NIH dollars is deposited in an online data repository once it’s accepted for publication (this must happen within 12 months of publication). The bill, H.R. 3699, is called the Research Works Act. Since previous legislation in federal open access policy – both for and against – rarely goes anywhere, I figured the same would happen with this bill. Those who follow the issues would note it, dust off the arguments from the last time this happened, bandy them about, and wait for nothing to happen.
This time is different, effective last week.
For a bill introduced in mid-December, when most attention, and even most technology-oriented attention, was focused on other bills and other priorities, the conventional path is usually one of obscurity for all but those focused on open access and/or scholarly publishing. However, when The New York Times feels it deserves the attention of an invited op-ed, a bill has found a broader audience. The editorial caps a week of increasing dissemination of the Act, why people don’t want the NIH policy rolled back, and general frustration. Michael Eisen, UC-Berkeley biologist and author of the op-ed, seems to have sparked much of the broader press interest. Besides the big science-oriented outlets (which have covered similar bills before, but as far as I can tell, not to this extent), The Atlantic took notice, as has WIRED, and the founder of the O’Reilly technology publishing entity engaged the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Darrell Issa, over Twitter on the matter.
So, what could this mean? It’s not clear to me. As I noted, the previous bills never got out of committee. While this bill is simpler, and in a different committee (House Oversight and Government Reform rather than House Judiciary), it would be reasonable to assume that the current fuss is going to keep this bill on the back burner. There is a more organized advocacy (members of the American Association of Publishers are being targeted over this bill), perhaps in part because of recent grassroots actions on Internet related legislation. Rep. Issa, who has seen online tools used to great effect in fighting the Stop Online Piracy Act, may well see the Research Works Act done in through the same kinds of tools.
Yes, there is some irony to be found in Rep. Issa taking apparently contradictory stances – closed scientific publishing versus an open Internet. But sometimes the nagging inconsistencies we find in others conflict with our rules for living, not theirs.
Legislatively, I think this bill stands a good chance of following its predecessors to nowhere. In terms of advocacy, things may change. If scientific societies that are part of the American Association of Publishers get any significant heat (Eisen has called for researchers to resign from societies that support the bill), there may be a chance in not seeing another bill like this in the next Congress. But that seems a big if.