When Should Information Not Be Free?

     Freedom of information is the backbone of good journalism. Keeping information open and available also helps democracy function. But contrary to the “information-wants-to-be-free” mindset left over from the dot-com era, free information isn’t free.

     In fact, information costs a lot of money – to produce, maintain and distribute.

     That’s one reason why what’s called an “open access” plan floating around Congress is such a bad idea. The proposal, under the mouthful Federal Research Public Access Act, would mandate “free online public access to such final peer-reviewed manuscripts or published versions as soon as practicable, but not later than 6 months after publication in peer-reviewed journals.”

     It sounds good in theory only. In practice, it could devastate an essential industry and hurt science instead of helping it. Though the work of this Congress is about over, come January this issue could well return.

     The basis of the debate comes from the way science spreads the word of new discoveries. For years, scientists have submitted their research results to journals, and those journals maintained a top-level group of advisers who reviewed the material before it was published. While far from perfect, it served as a nice check and balance to unsubstantiated claims of “science.”

     After an article appeared in print, it went into an electronic archive maintained by the publication. If you subscribed, you could access it any time you wanted – much like Lexis-Nexis. The people who wanted or needed the information subscribed so they could continue to get the archive as well as any new issues.

     But the good senators wish to change all that and force researchers who work with the government to pay to publish. Then the government would own the results forever. The idea is to end the hold that publishers have over the data and create new, pay-for-play journals that would make their money up front when authors pay thousands of dollars to get published.

     There are several examples, such as the Public Library of Science publications, but so far the business model simply doesn’t work. PLoS reportedly lost $1 million last year and covered just 35 percent of its costs.

     It’s as if the government’s whole plan is based on one of those sleazy poetry scams where they will publish your “great” writing, if you’ll pay them $4,000 for a copy of the book. Only, in this case, a few thousand dollars up front won’t pay for a reputable journal, professional peer review and all of the business operations needed. So it has to be supplemented by rich “benefactors.”

     Enter George Soros, a huge supporter of open access. You know him, the left-wing billionaire who funds liberal Democrats and uber-leftist groups with equal abandon. The Los Angeles Times credited him with giving $27 million to the 2004 presidential campaign. The New York Times explained that “George Soros funneled tens of millions into liberal groups like MoveOn.org.”

     It’s not like I wouldn’t gladly liberate some of Soros’ vast wealth. (Tens and twenties, please, George.) I just don’t like what he’s buying – science. That’s because the new open access system replaces the free market of ideas with patronage. Scientists would need the extra cash “possibly always,” according to one PLoS official.

     This issue might sound like the congressional equivalent of two professors beating each other with heavy science textbooks. But it’s an issue that matters to the rest of us because we rely on solid science results to get a true read on our world.

     It’s an issue so controversial that it caused nine members of the editorial board of an Oxford University math journal to announce their resignations.

     Advocates are pushing an attempt to apply the “open source” success of the computer world to the scientific community. According to the Association of College & Research Libraries, the government funds $55 billion in research each year. This would take those results out of the journal world and dump them into mountainous new databases, supposedly free to all who would use them – though we’d have to pay to create this whole new bureaucracy.

     Open access tries to replace the existing system, where quality publications make their mark and make money. In their place, we’d get government bureaucracy and publications that strive more to acquire and maintain benefactors than to report science.

     Mandating that something is free doesn’t make it so. All you get is something cheap instead.

Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.