Enough with Secrecy in Research

If you do security research, say to make sure voting machines are secure, you could get sued because of the way copyright law is written. That’s insane. That’s why I enthusiastically signed on to Alex Halderman’s request for Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies.

And if you’re a physician trying to get access to the latest medical research, the NIH just helped make that publicly available, but a terrible bill, H.R. 801, is now trying to reverse that and force you to pay exorbitant access fees to scientific journals… for research that taxpayers already paid for! That’s why I just wrote to my representative and you should too:

Dear Representative Michael Capuano,

As a medical-informatics research scientist at Harvard Medical School and a computer-science research fellow at Harvard University, I strongly urge you to oppose H.R. 801, “the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” introduced to the House Judiciary Committee on February 3, 2009.

A few months ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) instituted the NIH Public Access Policy, making available to the taxpayers what they already pay for: the scientific results of taxpayer-funded research. This idea is not only obvious, it also benefits scientific progress and public health. H.R. 801 would undo this great advance.

When research is locked down in expensive journals, the publishing companies benefit while the scientific community and the public suffer. Research scientists and their institutions are stuck paying ever-increasing fees (more than twice inflation) for scientific journals whose publishing model is stuck in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, none of these access fees are paid to the original authors of the work, of course, only to the publishing companies. Libraries around the country, even those at well funded universities, are struggling to keep up with these journal access fees, and many are forced to cancel subscriptions. With access to scientific data curtailed, scientific progress becomes slower, more expensive, and less productive.

The effect of H.R. 801 on the public are no less worrisome. Because of the NIH Public Access Policy, millions of Americans now have access to vital health care information from the NIH’s PubMed Central database. Under the current policy, nearly 3,000 new biomedical manuscripts are deposited for public accessibility each month. H.R. 801 would prohibit the deposit of these manuscripts, seriously impeding the ability of physicians, health-care professionals, and families to access and use this critical health-related information in a timely manner.

Importantly, the NIH policy is quite balanced, leaving plenty of room for publishers to make money. Articles remain exclusive to scientific journals for 6 months after publication. Publishers, who are, unsurprisingly, strong supporters of H.R. 801, simply seek to increase their profits by keeping taxpayer-funded scientific results locked in.

The NIH has determined that public health and scientific research greatly benefit from open access to taxpayer-funded research. Their expert opinion should not be overruled by corporate lobbying that would benefit the very few at great cost to the public. Please oppose H.R.801.


Ben Adida, PhD

Children’s Hospital Informatics Program
Harvard Medical School

Center for Research on Computation and Society
Harvard University

(my letter reuses some small parts from the sample Taxpayer Access letter, though heavily customized.)

Enough with bogus rules that disproportionately benefit a small number of corporations at significant public cost. If you’re a researcher, a physician, a member of the public who doesn’t like paying for things twice, you should write to your representative, too.





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