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What Cash Records Suggest About Conyers' Clamp Down on Open Science

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, March 3 2009

As transparency reaches the level of what Clay Shirky has taken to calling "the new marketing," the question becomes, eh, so what? Open government advocates fight to get truckloads of government data posted online in a timely, structured, and accessible way. But there's a very real debate about how that tsunami of information actually betters the interaction between we the people and them that make decisions in Washington DC. Change Congress' Larry Lessig and others think they've stumbled upon a situation that might put some meat on data-driven open government's bones. It is, as Lessig frames it, the battle between the wide-open Internet and "Big Paper."

Here's the deal. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers has reintroduced the generously Fair Copyright in Research Works Act. The bill would prohibit any federal agency from requiring that rights to research they fund be transferred to the agency or, by extension, the public -- as the National Institutes of Health does with the free, publicly accessible PubMed Central system. (GovTrack can help you keep an eye on H.R. 801 as it wends its way through Congress.)

Why would the Michigan Democrat advance a bill that would push tax-payer funded scientific research back into the shadows? Lessig thinks the data might suggest one possible reason why. Using the Center for Responsive Politics fundraising numbers, the money-in-politics group MAPLight found that Conyers and the four other H.R. 801's co-sponsors on Judiciary received about, on average, double the campaign cash from the Association of American Publishers and other publishing interests than the 34 non-cosponsors got.

That's Lessig and other advocates' take on the numbers. The question might still remain though, whether cold hard averages are the best way to explain the political story. Consider, for example, that some non-801 fans got more publishing industry cash than Conyers et al. For example, Conyers rang up $9,000 from publishers, for example, but non-cosponsor Jerry Nadler took in just under $11,000. And 17 average-killing members got not one thin dime from publishers.

But that's the thing about open data -- you can see for yourself and draw your own conclusions.