NYT Should Start an "Enclosure Watch"

I propose that the New York Times start a new feature called “Enclosure Watch.” After all, they report on one form of enclosure after another nearly every day. It's the story of our times.  Why not consolidate the effort and give the topic some real focus and depth -- to name it as enclosure?  This idea occurred to me after reading two opeds on consecutive days, each on the same place on the page, detailing two old, familiar enclosures.  

The first involves the mining industry's massive plunder of the public's mineral wealth in the West. The second involves a proposed lockup of taxpayer-funded scientific and medical research. Both are brazen ripoffs of the public by a “free market” system that dares not live up to its own ideological creed.  And both are achieved through gross imbalances of political power.

The Mining Act governing the extraction of gold, silver, copper, uranium and other metals from public lands in the West was enacted in 1872, when Ulyssess S. Grant was president. Yes, that's right: a law passed 140 years ago remains in force.  It privileges the mining of hard-rock mining over all other uses of federal lands. The law authorizes private mining on public lands for $5 an acre, with no royalties for what is actually extracted, and little concern for the environmental consequences.

The authors of the oped, "A Mining Law Whose Time Has Passed" (January 12) – two fisheries scientists from Corvallis, Oregon, Robert M. Hughes and Carol Ann Woody – don't even mention the financial ripoff of the American people. They are focused on the pollution of the West's rivers. They write:

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that headwater streams in 40 percent of Western watersheds are polluted by mining. A scientific review in 2006 of 25 modern Western mines by the environmental group Earthworks found that more than three-fourths resulted in water contamination. Overall, the EPA has estimated that it will cost $20 billion to $54 billion to clean up abandoned mine sites.

Many people don't appreciate that mining disgorges all sorts of toxic chemicals in the soil and water. It is not regulated effectively. And so prime salmon habitat in Montana and Alaska and Oregon has been despoiled, along with many other waterways, wildlife and ecosystems.  The former chief of the Forest Service testified before the Senate that “it is nearly impossible to prohibit mining under the current framework of the 1872 mining law, no matter how serious the impacts might be.”

Remedial legislation is now pending to revamp the 1872 Mining Act, by requiring payment of royalties and various environmental and community protections.  But don't hold your breath. The mining industry-friendly Senators of the West keep this palpably destructive law on the books. The documentation of environmental harm is clear. The violation of free market principles is clear. The economic theft from the American people is clear. Yet still it continues, a testament not just to the impotence of facts, but also to the corruption of the legislative process.

On the other front – taxpayer-funded scientific research – commercial journal publishers are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want us to subsidize their publications – but they also want to privatize the profits and limit public access to research we have already bought.

Michael B. Eisen, a founder of the Public Library of Science – a publisher of open-access scientific journals – warns in his oped (January 11) that the Association of American Publishers wants Congress to prohibit the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from requiring grantees to provide their peer-reviewed journal articles to the National Library of Medicine for publication on its website.

You see, the journals want taxpayers to continue to finance the cutting-edge research that the journals publish – but then they want to own the copyright and lock up the articles so that you and I would have to pay $15 to $30 for an individual article. We've already bought the research -- and they want us to pay again!

Publishers argue that it costs money to manage the peer review and editorial process for articles – and that research articles are already available for free after one year, as stipulated under the NIH's current open access policy.  But as Eisen points out, the peer review process “is carried out almost entirely by researchers who volunteer their time. Scientists are expected to participate in peer review as part of their employment, and thus the publicly funded dalaries most of them draw through universities or research organizations are yet another way in which taxpayers already subsidize the publishing process.” Then there are the billions of dollars that public universities and institutions pay for subscriptions to these journals.

“The latest effort to overturn the NIH's public access policy should dispel any remaining illusions that commercial publishers are serving the intereests of the scientific community and public,” writes Eisen.

Again, publishers are a powerful lobby. Congress is more accustomed to heeding its interests than those of the American people. Which is why it is time for scientists, colleges and universities and other research institutions to take things into their own hands and start to play hardball.

As Eisen urges, faculty should be encouraged if not required to publish their works in open access journals, and to start boycotting proprietary journals. Libraries should start cancelling their subscriptions to proprietary journals. NIH and other research institutions should explicitly require “that their researchers' scholarly output be freely available to the public at the moment of publication,” and help accelerate the transition of research publication to open-access journals.

There are countless enclosures like this going on every day. Prominent media outlets routinely focus on the latest mergers and acquisitions, and the new product rollouts and marketing campaigns. What about focusing on taxpayer ripoffs and the hypocritical flouting of free-market principles? Why not pay attention to the fairer, more efficient commons-based alternatives?  An Enclosure Watch feature is long overdue.