FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

House Science Subcommittee Examines Public Access to Research

Richard M. Jones
Number 49 - April 12, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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In opening a hearing on public access to research results, House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) explained:

“The formal review and communication of research findings dates back several centuries. Over this time, it has certainly served society well. Scholars can argue over whether the existing structure, including peer review, is sufficient or if more can be done to ensure quality, but one thing is certain, society has greatly benefited from it.”

A panel of five witnesses at this March 29 hearing of this subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee offered contrasting approaches on increasing public access to the results of federally-funded research.  While there was marked disagreement about how this could best be accomplished, all agreed that the dissemination of research results to the public is important.  This hearing provided a thoughtful and well-articulated review of what the subcommittee later called the “complexity and promise of increased public access to research.”

H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics, was the first to testify.  AIP published more than 20,000 scholarly articles in its journals and those of five of its Member Societies in 2011.  In his written testimony, Dylla stated:

“AIP strongly supports the broad dissemination of scholarly research, which includes public access to journal articles, data, and related information. It is our position that the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-358) contains the best and most effective framework to broaden public access. Indeed, recent collaborative efforts by AIP, other scientific societies, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation have made significant progress toward these goals under the comprehensive structure outlined in America COMPETES.

“Due to the complex and highly nuanced nature of this issue, new legislation or government policies that force free public access through a single dissemination business model would harm the collaborative process that stakeholders have worked so hard to achieve. Moreover, a blanket approach to public access would diminish the quality and value of published scholarly research and actually detract from achieving the goal of increasing access to scholarly literature.”

The second witness, Elliot Maxwell, disagreed.  Maxwell authored a report under the auspices of the Committee for Economic Development examining the National Institute of Health’s public access policy requiring the posting of peer-reviewed manuscripts in the freely-available PubMed Central within twelve months of publication.  In his written testimony, Maxwell told the subcommittee:

“The report analyzed the costs and benefits of the NIH public access policy and proposals to extend or overturn it based on the evidence from four years of experience with the policy. It found substantial increases in public access and substantial public benefits arising from the increased access. It found no persuasive evidence of harm to the development and dissemination of high quality research; on the contrary it found that increased public access increased the rate of progress in science by expanding follow on research and facilitating more and more varied approaches to important scientific questions and was likely to improve the efficiency of the research enterprise, increase innovation, and promote economic growth.   The same logic applies to other areas of research funded by taxpayers although the particular circumstances may be different.”

Concluding his written testimony, Maxwell stated:

“We should be careful about proposing governmental actions but we should also be trying to maximize the return on taxpayer investments in research; we should also be enthusiastic about the capability of all people, experts and everyman, to use research results to make contributions to the common good.”

Another perspective was provided by Crispin Taylor who is the Executive Director of the American Society of Plant Biologists.  ASPB publishes two plant science research journals and a free access, peer-reviewed publication.  Like Dylla, Taylor referred to provisions in the America COMPETES Act designed to increase public access to research results.  Said Taylor:

“The key points of my testimony are that the government should adopt sensible, flexible, and cautious approaches to drafting and revising public access policies or regulations. These approaches should engage all concerned parties, including federal agencies, scientists, university administrators, librarians, publishers, and the public, and they should foster innovation and collaboration. Policies should focus attention on providing access to the definitive version of an article, developing robust metadata standards, and on ensuring increased interoperability among journal articles and other valuable sources of information online. And they should recognize and embrace the global nature of scientific research and scholarly publishing.”

He continued:

“Although this testimony is not intended to address a particular piece of proposed legislation, it is important to point out that these attributes are largely spelled out in existing legislation – specifically in Section 103 of the America COMPETES Act of 2010 (Public Law No: 111-3581) – which itself incorporates many of the recommendations in the report of the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable.”

The Scholarly Publishing Roundtable was formed in June 2009 at the request of the Science, Science, and Technology Committee, issuing a 25-page report in January 2010.  Dylla and Taylor, and a third witness, Scott Plutchak, were members of this Roundtable.  Further information on this report can be found here.

Professor Stuart Shieber testified about the development of Harvard University’s open access Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH) article repository.  Shieber led this effort, and supports free and open access, telling the subcommittee:

“Thanks to the forward thinking of federal science funding agencies, including NSF, DARPA, NASA, and DOE, we now have available computing and networking technologies that hold the promise of transforming the mechanisms for disseminating and using knowledge in ways not imaginable even a few decades ago. The internet allows nearly instantaneous distribution of content for essentially zero marginal cost to a large and rapidly increasing proportion of humanity. Ideally, this would ramify in a universality of access to research results, thereby truly achieving the widest possible dissemination.”

In concluding his written testimony, Shieber stated:

“Open access policies build on these information technology breakthroughs to maximize the return on the taxpayers’ enormous investment in that research, and magnify the usefulness of that research. They bring economic benefits that far exceed the costs. The NIH has shown one successful model, which could be replicated at other funding agencies, as envisioned in the recently re-introduced bipartisan Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA).  Providing open access to the publicly-funded research literature - amplifying the ‘diffusion of knowledge’ - will benefit researchers, taxpayers, and every person who gains from new medicines, new technologies, new jobs, and new solutions to longstanding problems of every kind.”

The final witness to testify was T. Scott Plutchak, Director of the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  At the outset, he told the subcommittee:

“Unfortunately, the debates over access to the peer-reviewed journal literature that have taken place over the last decade or so have been unnecessarily contentious and have diverted energy and attention from what could have been, and should have been, a careful examination of facts and opportunities. The recent flurry of activity surrounding the introduction of the Research Works Act (RWA) and the reintroduction of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) have resulted in a great deal of the kind of sloganeering, wishful thinking, and shading of fact in order to score rhetorical points that has characterized most of the public debate around Open Access during the past decade.”

In concluding his written testimony, Plutchak said:

“Developing federal policies that will maximize the public’s investment in research and provide incentives for the development of a robust scholarly communication system is complicated, and achieving the appropriate balance of interests may not be as emotionally satisfying as advocating the simplicity of something like FRPAA. But the American public deserves to have us do this right.”

Comments from the subcommittee members reflected the complexity of this issue.  Chairman Broun stated in his opening remarks:

“Society’s expectations of transparency are clearly increasing. Couple this trend with the fact that taxpayers rightfully expect access to research they have funded, and you quickly realize that we all must work together to ensure that the various interests involved are treated fairly, and that ultimately science and research are not harmed.

“This is no small matter. There are more than 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, produced by over 2,000 publishers. These journals publish more than 1.5 million articles a year, and earn revenues between $8 and $10 billion dollars from their subscribers. This revenue funds over 100,000 jobs worldwide -- 30,000 in the U.S. alone.

“I have a lot of questions about how we should meet the challenges of expanding access to research without compromising the quality of the product, or the rights of those involved in the process.”

The subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Paul Tonko (D-NY) commented in his opening remarks:

“In 2010, this Committee adopted language that set the stage for enhancing public access to Federally-funded research. Since that time, two legislative proposals have emerged and have received the scientific communities’ attention. 

“At this point, I believe the language this Committee included in the reauthorization of the American Competes Act remains the best path forward.”

He later added:

“If we proceed to a legislative approach, we may end by creating more problems than we solve. An abrupt end to the current system could drive some publishers out of existence. It could result in the loss of established journals and weaken professional scientific societies. These outcomes would be counterproductive to the goal of having high quality research widely published and disseminated.

“How we produce, share, and preserve knowledge is on the edge of the greatest change in four centuries. There are many new opportunities for improvement and this is an exciting time. Transitions are always unsettling, but they offer a period for constructive experimentation.

“I believe we should take the time to hear from all interested parties, encourage the Federal science agencies to move their efforts forward, and refrain at this time from prejudging the best outcome through prescriptive legislation.”

Broun’s questions focused on whether a “one size fits all” policy was appropriate, the applicability of ongoing DOE and NSF access policies to other R&D agencies, and the mass downloading of research articles by foreign countries.  Tonko asked about how to best take advantage of digital technologies, whether there are negative consequences to giving market and technologies the opportunity to respond to the changing environment, peer review, and the applicability of the NIH approach for the reporting of all research results.  Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who is also a member of the House Judiciary Committee, discussed copyright law, expressed grave reservations that the current business model for academic journals is sustainable, peer review, and the challenge of supporting scientific societies with alternative revenue streams if publishing income is significantly reduced.

In looking ahead, Chairman Broun’s opening comments are of note:

“As you can see I have a lot of questions, but I think one thing is clear. Any effort to fundamentally change the way in which federal research is reviewed, vetted, transmitted, and communicated should benefit from the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s input. We have been involved in investigating issues surrounding public access for a number of years, and are uniquely qualified to evaluate the impacts on research and federal agencies.”

He continued:

“Rep. [Bart] Gordon, the former Committee Chairman, brought together a number of stakeholders in 2009 in order to find common ground, and in 2010 the ‘Scholarly Publishing Roundtable’ issued a report containing several recommendations. We also tasked the Office of Science and Technology Policy to address this issue in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 and expect their results soon. Today’s hearing is an extension of this longstanding engagement.”

As the hearing concluded, Broun told his fellow subcommittee members and the witnesses:

“In fact, I have a very strong opinion about property rights, including intellectual property.”

The subcommittee’s website provides access to an archived webcast of this hearing, the chairman’s opening remarks, the written testimony of all five witnesses, and an informative background “hearing charter.”  Ranking Member Tonko’s opening remarks are here.      

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics