One of the greatest public goods our taxpayers fund is biomedical research.
Findings from NIH-funded research are used day-in and day-out to help doctors make treatment and diagnosis decisions, to help health departments better allocate their resources to promote health and prevent disease, and to inspire new ideas for the next generation of medical breakthroughs.
That's not just here in America, but all over the world.
Compared to all of the direct foreign aid our government disburses and all the flag-waving it does in an effort to improve our image on the global market, freely available NIH-funded research is among the best displays of goodwill we put forth. Consider, for example, a recent conversation I shared in an Alexandria hospital with Dr. Salah, an Egyptian surgeon. When he found out I was American he proclaimed "God bless America for Pubmed" -- the National Library of Medicine's online search engine for health research.
But that may soon come to an end. A recent bill, the "Research Works Act", proposed under pressure from the Association of American Publishers, threatens to strangle access to health research to protect the interests of a few greedy corporations -- it would keep crucial, life-saving information from doctors and scientists who use it to take care of people and contribute to knowledge.
You see, almost all high-quality health research is submitted for publication in academic journals -- journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), or the New England Journal of Medicine. They serve the purpose of coordinating peer-review, organizing the health literature, and benchmarking high quality research. Peer-review is the process by which research articles are sent out to other scientists who read and evaluate them for rigor, clarity, and importance. Reviewers score articles and then recommend them for publication, revision and resubmission, or rejection.
Reviewers aren't paid for their services, and in most cases, neither are editorial board members who shoulder the actual responsibilities of coordinating peer-review. But as you can imagine, these journals are a lucrative business.
Then who sees the money?
Publishers do: companies like Elsevier and Wiley. The fact that you've probably never heard these names before should tell you just how (un)important they really are in the whole process.
As it stands, publishers are allowed to restrict NIH-funded research by subscription for one year. At that point, the NIH requires that all funded research be released to the public and made easily accessible via Pubmed -- where people all over the world, like Dr. Salah, can then use it to inform diagnostic and treatment decisions or guide future research.
This bill would make it illegal for the NIH to mandate unrestricted access to published NIH-funded material -- choking this crucial information off from health providers and researchers who are unable to pay.
This bill is one last plea for protection from a dying industry -- a result of the changing scientific publishing market.
Not only are there more journals than ever before, but traditional heavy-hitters are facing new competitors. For example, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) flagship journal PLoS Medicine is now regarded almost as highly as JAMA. What's more, newer journals, like the PLoS brand are adopting an open-access model, where researchers are charged publication fees, but access to their work is never restricted. Like email did to snail-mail, these newer journals are outpacing their out-of-date, out-of-touch counterparts.
This bill would force taxpayers -- who pay for NIH-funded research in the first place -- to pay publishers for the right to access the science they've paid to have done.
What's worse, the heaviest burden of this insidious bill, if passed, would fall on the poor and underserved.
At home, it would keep crucial medical information from doctors who serve low-income patients and who can't afford the steep subscription costs. In low-income countries abroad, it would choke off doctors and scientists who rely on NIH-funded research to improve the lives and wellbeing of billions of people.
Unfortunately, the world of scientific publishing isn't as big as, well, the entire Internet -- so the word's not getting out. But this bill is arguably just as dangerous -- if not more dangerous -- than SOPA.
Access to crucial scientific knowledge is at stake. Help kill this bill and save lives by contacting your representatives and expressing your indignation today.
Follow Abdulrahman El-Sayed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elabdul