What is a “private-sector research work”?

January 30, 2012

A short one this time, honestly.

I’ve written plenty about the Research Works Act, both on this blog and in The Guardian.  Those writings have mostly focussed on the practical implications of the bill.  But those aren’t the real reasons that it invokes such rage in me.  That comes from this definition (from the text of the bill):

The term ‘private-sector research work’ means an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government (as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States Code), describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a Federal agency and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing.

So if Randy Irmis gets an NIH grant to research some subject; if under that funding he does the research, writes the paper, creates the illustrations, formats it all according to a journal’s guidelines; if it’s edited by John Hutchinson for an Elsevier journal by donation of the time he would otherwise spend on his own research; if it’s peer-reviewed by Matt Wedel on Western University’s dime and by me at my own expense (since I have no funding of any kind); if Randy executes the necessary revisions and eventually the paper appears in that Elsevier journal — then the paper is a ‘private-sector research work’.

In this scenario, apart from a small amount of typesetting, the private sector’s only contribution has been to accept donations of time, effort and expertise from scientists.  And the text of the RWA says that this makes the result the property of the private sector (i.e. in this case Elsevier).

That stinks.  It stinks much worse than any of the actual consequences should the RWA pass.  It stinks of arrogance, privilege, enshrined habitual dominance and a habit of bullying.  And it can’t be allowed to stand.

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7 Responses to “What is a “private-sector research work”?”


  1. and people wonder why I use the term BigPublishing (following the pattern of BigTobacco and BigOil).

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    Here’s a wrinkle. I work at Western University of Health Sciences, a private, non-profit educational institution. I am fortunate to have a position that is 50% research and writing, 40% teaching, and 10% service. Performing peer reviews is an expected duty for an active researcher, so reviewing papers at work is a defensible and even expected use of my time.

    Now, according to the RWA, peer review is a value-added contribution that entitles a commercial publisher to claim an article as ‘private-sector research work’. However, as Mike pointed out, Elsevier isn’t adding that value, Western is, through me. So it seems to me that Western has a claim to a piece of the pie. If the article is going to count as ‘private-sector research work’, why does it belong to Elsevier, which made no technical contributions, instead of Western, which did? Should Western not be able to bill Elsevier for my time?

    Of course, the real answer is that Western’s share of the pie should not exist, not because it should all go to Elsevier but because there shouldn’t be a pie at all. The research was paid for by the taxpayers, it should be freely available to them, and the fact that we’re even talking about how much profit Elsevier should get when everyone but Elsevier is making an actual contribution only illustrates how infuriatingly backwards the situation is.


  3. I am not allowed to review papers (or style edit them, for that matter) in my work time. My contract explicitly states that my full work power must go into the project, which tariffs in Germany typically define as anything between 38 and 40 hours a week. Thus, my reviews are written in my spare time.

    Hey, all you for-ripoff publishers out there, where’s MY share?????


  4. Matt Wedel, in answer to your second question: Yes. And if Elsevier (and the others) are brought to this view by the universities, they may actually capitulate on the matter … or begin compensating reviewers/editors for their time. But as your time and theirs are both in the private sector, this remains a private-sector transaction, and the terms set by Elsevier are not debated or refused when agreeing to the work asked of you, i.e., editing and reviewing. If, on the other hand, you were in a public university, with the same requirements to grant your time in this manner, if not precisely to whom, then there would be a potential legal — non-tort — issue where your compensation is not required: the university’s is, as this time then becomes a product of taxpayer funding, which Elsevier runs aground of in its ridiculous argument that IT supplies the reviewers, editors, etc.

    I say: Push this angle a bit.

  5. Allen Hazen Says:

    As for Springer (et al.) contributing “a small amount of typesetting”: a lot of journals, I think, request submissions in a form (TeX, in mathematics and logic) which minimizes the amount of work the publisher has to do even on this front…


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