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House Hears New Open Access Fight

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The House of Representatives has begun consideration of a bill that would make the results of federally-funded research supported by most government agencies available to the public within six months after publication in scholarly journals.

The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2009 (H.R. 5037), which would cover agencies with research budgets over $100 million, would expand US public access policy beyond the National Institutes of Health to include the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of Agriculture, and others.

In a hearing late last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee hosted advocates for and opponents against the bill who argued their respective cases — one being that public access to more government-funded research would greatly benefit science and medicine, and the other that the current system is perfectly fine, and that FRPAA would drive the scholarly publishing industry to ruin.

In 2008, the NIH started instituting its open access policy, which requires papers to be submitted in electronic form to PubMed Central within one year after publication, and last year a bill was introduced in the House to overturn the NIH rules.

That bill would amend the US Code to keep the federal government from imposing terms or conditions regarding licenses or rights based on certain federal funding conditions.

"Unlike many other challenges our country faces and problems policymakers must solve, there is no crisis in the world of scholarly publishing or in the dissemination of scientific materials," Allen Adler, VP of government and legal affairs at the Association of American Publishers (AAP), told the committee.

Speaking on behalf of FRPAA, New England Biolabs' Chief Scientific Officer Richard Roberts disagreed.

"This lack of access has a deleterious impact on the small start-up biotech companies and others for whom cutting edge science is their bread and butter," he said, adding a new layer to the common arguments of open access advocates, who generally focus on the benefits to disease research.

"Too often, we forget that research is carried out in many places other than the well-known research universities," said Roberts. "A strong policy demanding open access to the results of government-funded research can help small companies to be competitive, can stimulate job opportunities within those companies, and can ensure that our students, the scientists of the future, can find out where the cutting edge of research really lies."

Adler insisted that the bill seeks to cure an ailment that isn't there.

"For over a century, non-profit and commercial publishers have served as the government's partner in fueling scientific discovery and innovation. The presumption now that taxpayers should have free access to peer-reviewed journal articles seriously discounts the considerable contributions of our industry and highly skilled workforce of some 50,000, who are driving the US knowledge economy and supporting our leadership in science," Adler added.

Not only is a change not needed, Adler argued, but FRPAA could have serious negative consequences.

"Government policies that mandate free, online availability of private sector journals will have the same effect on the journal publishing industry as free, online news and advertising have had on the newspaper industry: bankruptcy, closure, and job cuts," said Adler.

"While publishers argue that they create value around the raw information, we would argue that scientists, funded with federal tax dollars, and so stewards of the public trust, infuse these articles with value," Sharon Terry, who is president and CEO of Genetic Alliance, told the subcommittee.

"There is no doubt that publishers add value, and that the value proposition around this body of knowledge should be paid for – but not the research results themselves. It is the duty of the federal government to facilitate sunshine on this data, to bring these articles into the public commons as quickly as possible," she added.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which advocates for open access policies, today released a report suggesting that if FRPAA became the law of the land that it could eventually lead to a return on public investment in the US of between three and 16 times the costs.

The study, "The Economic and Social Returns on Investment in Open Archiving Publicly Funded Outputs," conducted by Victoria University, uses a new model that examines the effect of key variables that influence the potential return on investment from research.

The AAP supports the America Competes Act, a bill that has been bouncing around in the House and Senate during this session of Congress that calls for a government assessment of open access policies and makes a distinction between digital data and scholarly publications, according to Adler.

Terry's group, which advocates for research into genetic diseases and for patients with those diseases, said that she wants to see FRPAA pass soon to support NIH's open access policy.

"Let's do it, let's not spend any more of our previous time debating this, commenting on this. We live on the promise and inestimable value of publicly funded science … We've got a great deal of work to do, and we need the tools now," she said.