House Science Subcommittee Examines Public Access to Research

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Publication date: 
12 April 2012

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.