Plagiarist or Puppet? US Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s reprehensible defense of Elsevier’s Research Works Act

There has been lots of activity this week surrounding the “Research Works Act“, a bill introduced in the US House of Representatives that seeks to end the NIH’s Public Access Policy. Despite the flurry of attention to the bill, its authors – Reps Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) have remained silent (save a brief twitter exchange between Issa and Tim O’Reilly).

That changed today when a letter from Rep. Maloney defending the bill was published on the blog of Harvard researcher Alex Kentis (she was responding to his expression of opposition to the bill). Maloney writes:

Dear Dr. Kentsis:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me about your opposition to HR 3699. As someone who represents thousands of researchers, research institutions, and publishers, and a strong advocate who helped double NIH funding, I appreciate the opportunity to respond.

First, I think it’s important to point out that this bill does NOT impact research reports and raw data generated by government-funded research. This information would still be available at no cost to the public. Reports that suggest that these NIH funded research papers (prior to peer review) will not be available for free are wrong. Authors still retain the ability to share data, reports, and other forms of research findings derived from the taxpayer-funded research. However, once a publisher has worked on a manuscript, spent private funds to improve it and has peer-reviewed it, under this bill, the government would not be able to take that work-product and disseminate it for free. The information, the manuscript, and the data can be made available for free before they receive any private investment.

The purpose of HR 3699 is to support the continued investment and innovation by private-sector publishers in scientific, technical, medical and scholarly journal articles and to advance the public interest in the important peer-review publishing system that helps ensure the quality and integrity of scientific research.

The importance of peer review cannot be overstated. It is the system by which experts give informed comments on papers in highly specialized fields of science. It is essential to providing independent, informed, objective assessments to maintain the quality of scientific articles and ensure that science develops independently of ideological and political interests. Because peer review happens and fixes problems prior to publication, we never hear about the false or erroneous research that would otherwise make it into journal articles.

Moreover, the publishing industry has invested in providing public access to scientific journal articles. Patients can get free access to information on new research through various publisher programs including PatientINFORM. Anyone can go into research libraries for free access to the articles in which publishers have invested substantially to ensure their high quality.

Two-thirds of the access to PubMed central is from non-US users. In effect, current law is giving our overseas scientific competitors in China and elsewhere important information for free. We are already losing scientists due to a reduction in funding for federal research. This policy now sends our value-added research papers overseas at no cost.

Finally, as people continue to struggle during these difficult economic times, it is important to be mindful of the impact of various industries on job creation and retention. New York State is home to more than 300 publishers that employ more than 12,000 New Yorkers, many of whom live in or around New York City in my district. New York City scientific publishers represent a significant subset of the total, and more than 20 are located in Manhattan, publishing thousands of scientific journals and employing thousands of New Yorkers. This bill saves American jobs. No industry could survive a model whereby they invest private dollars and are then required to give it to the federal government to disseminate the final product for free.

Once again, I appreciate your taking the time to contact me.

Member of Congress

I will point why I think her letter is ignorant, ill-informed, deceptive, patronizing, jingoistic and generally vile an a separate post. But first I want to point out something else that struck me about the letter.

Last Thursday, I wrote a post here speculating on the link between Rep. Maloney’s support for the bill and the large number of contributions she has received from senior American executives of the Dutch publishing conglomerate Elsevier. My post got some good play, and obviously came to attention of people at Elsevier, because shortly after it was posted comments began to appear from Tom Reller, Vice President for Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier (I know this is really him from communications we’ve had via email).

Although I disagree with virtually everything Reller said (here is my response to his post), and find many of his points to be factually inaccurate, I’ll give him credit for remaining engaged in the discussion and defending his point of view. I read his comments closely and considered them carefully. Thus, they were still fresh in my mind when I read Rep. Maloney’s letter today. And let’s just say that it was hard not to detect a certain, umm, “similarity”, between the comments he posted as part of an ongoing dialog on my blog last week, and those sent out today by Rep. Maloney.

So that you can make your own judgment, I’ll repost his first set of comments here for your examination:

Elsevier, along with other commercial and non-profit publishers do indeed support the Research Works Act and commend Congressman Issa and Congresswoman Maloney for co-sponsoring this important legislation. You ask why Congresswoman Maloney co-sponsored this legislation? Simple. New York is one of the country’s leading publishing states with more than 300 publishers that employ more than 12,000 New Yorkers, many who live or work in or around New York City. Elsevier and many other publishers have offices located in Congresswoman Maloney’s district. We support her because she has been a strong supporter of this important industry, our employees and good public policy. And we believe the Research Works Act is good public policy.

For starters, the Research Works Act would only apply to journal articles where the private sector has provided a value-added contribution in the creation of these information products. The bill specifically excludes research reports and the raw data generated by government-funded research. Authors still retain the ability to share data, reports, and other forms of research findings derived from the taxpayer funded research, including their submitted manuscripts.

But while the government may fund the research, it does not fund the peer review process, editing, or publication of these private-sector information products. Elsevier and other commercial and non-profit publishers invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in managing the publication of journal articles. Government mandates that require private-sector information products to be made freely available undermine the industry’s ability to recoup these investments.

The publishing industry has invested significantly in providing public access to scientific journal articles. Patients can get free access to information on new research through various publisher programs including PatientINFORM. This program is provided in partnership with major heath organizations including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association. In addition, many publishers offer a low-cost (between $1 and $4) access through DeepDyve and other similar view-only services. Free access to journal articles is also provided through research libraries throughout the country. Publishers have also partnered with the United Nations to create Research4Life which provides free access to medical and agricultural institutions and practitioners in the developing countries. Millions of articles are downloaded each year as part of this program.

We’re very proud of what Elsevier has done throughout the years to expand access in sustainable ways, improve the research experience and enhance knowledge and discovery. And there are millions of researchers and other information professionals who value that contribution as well.

Now, I’m no expert on analyzing text (ok, I am, but that’s neither here nor there), but COME ON. Several sections Rep Maloney’s letter are sentences long copies of Reller’s comments , and the overall content and style are all but identical. These were clearly written by the same person.

Of course I don’t exactly how it came to be that a member of the US Congress was sending out emails defending a bill that were apparently written by the same person who was defending the same bill a week earlier on my blog verifiably identified as the head PR person for a company who would be a major beneficiary of said bill, and whose senior executives from all across the country just happened to have made lot of recent donations to said member of Congress. I’m sure it’s all just a coincidence.

Yeah, right. The comments on my blog were clearly Reller – his writing was natural and engaged directly with what other people were saying, so I’m sure he wasn’t just spouting prepared text. There are only two viable explanations for how essentially the same text ended up in Maloney’s letter. Either she copied it from my blog without citing its source (a clear violation of the Creative Commons Attribution license that governs all content on the site), or, Reller wrote the letter, either directly, or indirectly by preparing text that Maloney’s office could use to defend the bill. So Rep. Maloney a plagiarist or an Elsevier puppet.

Look, I’m not naive. I know this is the way our government works. Some monied special interest wants the shape the law to their liking, so they essentially buy a member of Congress by donating money to them and having their top executives do so as well. What they get for their money is access, a pliant ear, and the submission of legislation crafted to advance the narrow interests of the donor, often at the expense of the members own constituents and the broader public interest, and, in this case, in direct conflict with many issues the legislator has fought for in her career. Since the member of Congress doesn’t really care about the issue, or understand what the bill actually does, the donor provides their PR spin for them to use in defending it. Sometimes the bills don’t pass. But often they do. That’s how we end up with a government whose actions are often so wildly out of line with the public good.

So, given the history of their campaign contributions to Rep Maloney, I’m not really surprised to find that Elsevier’s fingers would be all over this bill and Rep Maloney’s defense of it.

We (my colleagues at PLoS and many others) have spent over a decade fighting to secure public access to publicly funded research. We finally start to make some progress – imperfect as the NIH Public Access Policy is, it is an important step in the right direction. And what happens? A member of Congress who faces no threat of defeat in the upcoming election disgracefully sells out the public good in exchange for some measly campaign contributions, and then doesn’t even have the decency to defend her actions with her own thoughts and words.

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