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Proposed Bill Threatens Open Access to Taxpayer-Funded Research

In recent years, Congress decided to make it a law that most taxpayer funded research had to be posted online with free access within 12 months of publishing. Access to a scholarly article can cost around $30. Now, a new bill introduced to the House of Representatives in December seeks to overturn that law.

The Research Works Act (H.R.3699) was introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). The proposed legislation would prevent unauthorized free access to journal articles on research that was in part federally-funded because publishers in the private sector do not receive the funding. According to the American Association of Publishers, which supports the bill, it would also:

[...] prevent non-government authors from being required to agree to such free distribution of these works. Additionally, it would preempt federal agencies’ planned funding, development and back-office administration of their own electronic repositories for such works, which would duplicate existing copyright-protected systems and unfairly compete with established university, society and commercial publishers.

Those who oppose the bill and support continuing and even furthering open access, like David Dobbs for Wired, believe it is necessary for "healthy science and science policy". Dobb's points out a blog post by Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist, who states that it maintaining open access is good for both the general taxpaying public as well as other researchers in the field:

The policy has provided access for physicians and their patients, teachers and their students, policymakers and the public to hundreds of thousands of taxpayer-funded studies that would otherwise have been locked behind expensive publisher paywalls, accessible only to a small fraction of researchers at elite and wealthy universities.

[...]

But the policy has been quite unpopular with a powerful publishing cartels that are hellbent on denying US taxpayers access to and benefits from research they paid to produce. This industry already makes generous profits charging universities and hospitals for access to the biomedical research journals they publish. But unsatisfied with feeding at the public trough only once (the vast majority of the estimated $10 billion dollar revenue of biomedical publishers already comes from public funds), they are seeking to squeeze cancer patients and high school students for an additional $25 every time they want to read about the latest work of America’s scientists.

AAPA counters stating that more than 30,000 workers and millions of dollars make it possible produce independent peer-reviewed journals with specialized experts and that 45 percent of all papers published worldwide appear in North American journals. Without charging for these services, they believe the journals would be unable to continue the high standard demanded of scientific publications. The organization also notes that journal articles are often accessible at academic institutions, libraries, online databases and through interlibrary loan programs.

The University of Michigan's What We're Reading blog post by Meredith takes issue with the fact that AAPA is saying it isn't get compensated for maintaining an expensive peer-review process. Meredith points out that many journals only facilitate peer review, with the actual review taking place by a scholar on a pro bono basis.

Eisen goes on to point out that Elseiver, a Dutch publisher, has made several political contributions in 2011, many of which went to co-sponsor Maloney although only one contribution was from a senior executive within her district.

The bill has currently been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

One last thing…
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