Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is the sponsor of the "Research Works Act"

It seems as though Congress, having grown tired of pissing off large swaths of the country, are now opting to write bills that anger a very particular group of people. Almost a month ago, on December 16, 2011, California Republican Congressman Darrel Issa introduced the “Research Works Act” which would kill government-assisted open-access journals. As PJ said before, journals (especially the closed private ones) are the dinosaurs of academia and as Patricia Hill Collins later noted,

The issue for me is the tightly bundled nature of the current hierarchical ranking of journals with employment hierarchies within the academy. It’s as if the journal system has been hijacked by the audit culture of the academy, one that requires that we place a “value” on everything. Higher education is on a slippery slope rushing to a place of ignoring the quality of the actual ideas in a journal article, instead assuming that a particular article must be “good” because it is published in a “ranked” journal. I find this kind of Group Think distressing — it stunts creativity and privileges those who are already at the top.

This bill would effectively make such hierarchies the law of the land. The bill prohibits government agencies (like the National Science Foundation) from disseminating any research that has been submitted to a private publisher. Rebecca Rosen reports in The Atlantic:

This is a direct attack on the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central, the massive free online repository of articles resulting from research funded with NIH dollars. Similar bills have been introduced twice before, in 2008and 2009, and have failed both times…

Unsurprisingly, the bill is supported by the Association of American Publishers, a trade group that has long had issue with NIH’s public-access policy, which requires authors who receive any NIH funding to contribute their work to PubMed Central within 12 months of publication.

This does not mean the federal government is stopping us from making our own open journals. It just means the largest funder of institutional science, cannot. If it passes, then there will be lots of work to be done by individuals an nongovernmental agencies. Private universities and grant writers could step in to fill the gap. But I am much more excited about the small journals and digital humanities clusters that are experimenting with new kinds of publication. In fact, Cory Doctorow, writing in Boing Boing, thinks that these new kinds of publications are so popular and effective that is has scared the publishing industry into pushing the bill in the first place. I do not blame publishing corporations for recognizing a vastly superior business model, and taking steps to squash it before they can find a way to make the same profits in the new model. I agree with Danah Boyd when she says,

“what pisses me off to no end is that the same Marxist academics who pooh-pooh corporations justify their own commitment to this blood-sucking process with one word: tenure. Not like that is the end of the self-justifications. Even once scholars get tenure, they continue down the same path – even when not publishing with students – by telling themselves it’s for promotion or because grants require it or because of any other status-seeking process.”

Chris Kelty, Stephen Collier, and Andrew Lakoff have been publishing in an experimental journal called “LIMN.” It is all available for free on the web site, but you can also order a reasonably priced print edition that actually takes advantage of the printing technology of the last quarter century- there are color photos, beautifully and uniquely designed titles, and you can buy it on Amazon or directly from them.

The former editors of Cultural Anthropology, Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun, have been working with wikis and other online tools in the hopes of developing new kinds of collaborative research projects. I had the pleasure of working on one such project last spring. The Asthma Files, is an ongoing project that studies the assemblage of social and technical actors that make up the asthma research community. More generally, its an exercise in new kinds of knowledge production and dissemination. According to the site:

The Asthma Files in an expressly experimental ethnographic project that aims to produce, convey and circulate ethnographic knowledge in new ways. It also aims to create new forms of collaboration among ethnographers, and with other social science and humanities scholars, between ethnographers and artists interested in environmental and scientific communication, and with scientists, activists, and others concerned about asthma. Collaboration among ethnographers is supported by a structure that allows differently focused researchers to bring material into The Asthma Files, and explicate it with questions that are shared among researchers.

The Research Works Act should be stopped. The Asthma Files is the product of a collaboration with NIH. This law, while not outright preventing this kind of work, could have a chilling effect on innovative thinking. We need new models for disseminating knowledge, not intrusive laws that prop up ineffective institutions.

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