The lifeblood of science is publication of papers in journals. Many journals are nonprofits supported by scientific societies, while others are commercial ventures. One recent change in this field is a U.S. law that requires publically funded research papers to be freely available to the public. This has been widely hailed as a good thing.
For-profit journals are fighting back at the idea that they should give away even a modest part of this content. Now a law is in the works, called the Research Works Act or RWA, that would totally lock that content away. How can I be so sure it's "totally"? Here's how: the bill exempts peer-reviewed work from free access. That basically means all science.
Peer review is a longstanding system in which journal editors take submitted papers and send them to a small number of peer reviewerscolleagues who know the subject deeply and have volunteered to evaluate research papers. My colleague Kris Hirst, of About.com Archaeology, gives a more detailed explanation here. What I want to emphasize is that all the work of peer review, from the editor's time to the reviewers' time to the author's time in responding and rewriting, is offered free of charge, part of the professional norms of science.
The journal's burden under this system is no more than a little clerking. But the publishers (exemplified by the Association of American Publishers) want the law to declare that this routine, professional practice is their own value-added contribution. It is not. If they want to claim that, the journals should hire the editors and reviewers at a decent salary instead of paying them nothing while relying on their dedicated work.
Here's more: The RWA also mentions editing as part of a "value-added contribution" in the bill, and at that I have to laugh. I make part of my living as a copy editor of journal papers, and I'm quite familiar with the practices of for-profit journal publishers. They don't edit anything beyond simple mechanical matters like formatting. Authors instead hire a specialized firm or individual practitioner, at their own expense, to do the demanding level of editing needed on a paper by scientists for whom English is a second or third language. The journal does none of that.
In sum, journals make peer review and editing externalized expenses. Cheaper for them to lobby for a law that would put the profession's goodwill and third-party labor like mine onto their books by fiat. Suddenly they want to claim our work as their own? No way.
SVPOW: "Publishers Do Not Provide Peer Review. We Do."
Richard Poynder, "BioMed Central Opposes RWA"
Harvard Open Access Project: "Notes on the RWA"
Sandra Porter: "How Much Does It Cost to Get a Scientific Paper?"
Chronicle of Higher Education: "Who Gets to See Published Research?"