Lawmakers Hear Arguments for and Against Open Access to Research

July 29, 2010

Advocates for public access to federally funded research made their case before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Thursday, while publishers' representatives urged lawmakers to proceed with caution for fear of putting U.S. intellectual property—and publishers' livelihoods—at risk.

The witnesses argued for and against measures such as the National Institutes of Health policy that requires the results of federally funded research to be made freely available to the public within 12 months of publication. A senior NIH official also reported on how successful the NIH's public-access policy has been since it was put into effect in the spring of 2008.

The hearing took place before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives.

The subcommittee's chair, Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., Democrat of Missouri, noted in his opening remarks that the proceedings were not attached to any specific piece of legislation but were designed "to examine the current state of federally funded research and to discuss the potential implications of increased access."

A bill introduced in April by Rep. Michael F. Doyle, Democrat of Pennsylvania, would require the 11 federal agencies that have outside research budgets of $100-million or more to adopt policies mandating timely public access to research they subsidize. That bill, the Federal Research Public Access Act, HR 5037, is now before the full oversight committee.

Hardship for Publishers

The subcommittee first heard from publishers' representatives. Allan R. Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs for the Association of American Publishers, whose members include both trade and scholarly publishers, argued that it is critical to distinguish between federally financed research and journal articles based on that research, which he described as partly the product of publishers' labor. He repeated arguments often made by publishers about how their work enhances the value of research, and said that the 12-month embargo under the NIH policy is often not enough for publishers to recoup their investment.

"As taxpayers ourselves, collectively and individually, everyone in this room has paid for government-funded research, as well as the data and summary reports that result from this research," Mr. Adler said. "But taxpayers have not paid for the private-sector, peer-reviewed journal articles reporting on that research."

Mr. Adler urged lawmakers to find better approaches than the NIH public-access policy, which he described as "as a case study in how not to proceed."

"The effort to solve a problem that didn't exist is threatening job creation, economic growth, and scientific innovation in our country," he said.

Steven J. Breckler, executive director for science at the American Psychological Association, testified that the 12-month embargo is especially hard for publishers in the social and behavioral sciences.

"The cutting-edge research in psychology published by APA is rarely obsolete within a year and may have a shelf life of five to 10 years or more," he said. "Furthermore, only 16 percent of the eventual 'lifetime' usage of APA journal articles—in the form of downloads—occurs within the first year after publication."

Calls for Timely Access

Countering those arguments, a panel of scientists and patients' advocates made the case for strong federal public-access policies. Richard J. Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs, a company that makes biological reagents, won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of split genes. He argued that scientific progress depended on timely access to published research.

"Because scientific research critically depends on knowledge of the scientific literature and building on the work of others, access to this literature is the key to progress," Mr. Roberts told the subcommittee. "In my view, the open-access movement is one of the single most important initiatives currently under way within the scientific community."

Mr. Roberts was joined in his support for greater public access by patients' advocates, including Sophia Colamarino, vice president for research at Autism Speaks, and Sharon F. Terry, president and chief executive of Genetic Alliance, which promotes partnerships and information sharing to help people with genetic disorders.

David Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, testified that his group supports "a well-formed public-access policy." That support is based in part on polling of the provosts and research officers at the group's member institutions, he said.

"Federal legislation is required to ensure that there is full and free public access to scholarly articles arising out of federally funded research and that these works are preserved and remain available to future generations," Mr. Shulenburger testified.

The final witness was David J. Lipman, director of the NIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the National Library of Medicine. His center is the home of PubMed Central, "the publicly accessible, online archive of peer-reviewed biomedical sciences literature and the repository for NIH-funded papers submitted in compliance with the NIH Public Access Policy," Mr. Lipman explained in his testimony.

According to Mr. Lipman, the NIH's mandatory policy has produced notable results. Between May 2005 and December 2007, when the NIH had a voluntary public-access policy in place, only 19 percent of articles derived from NIH-funded research were deposited in PubMed Central, Mr. Lipman said. But submissions jumped after the policy became mandatory. "Of the estimated 88,000 NIH-funded articles published in 2009, approximately 70 percent have been submitted to PubMed Central," he said.