New, pending legislation could require all government research to be freely available to the public that funded it.

You might think that the results of publicly-funded taxpayer research would be freely available to the citizens who footed the bill in the first place, but you would be wrong—and perhaps in the mood to remedy the situation. That’s the logic that motivated John Cornyn (R-TX) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) to introduce a bill to the Senate that would require federal agencies with yearly budgets in excess of $100 million to put all the research they fund into digital repositories no later than six months after initial publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

If passed, the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 would affect all research fully or partially funded by agencies like NIH, USDA and the National Science Foundation, and would include hundreds of thousands of papers. The NIH alone funds the research behind 65,000 papers per year.

“Tax payer-funded research should be accessible to tax payers,” said Sen. Lieberman in a press statement at the bill’s introduction. “Our bill will give researchers, medical professionals and patients in Connecticut and throughout the nation access to scientific discoveries and advancements that can help bring new treatments and cures to the public.”

Many journal publishers say that open access of the sort laid out in the Cornyn-Lieberman bill would make subscription-based publications redundant, rendering moot the valuable process of selection, editing and peer review for which publishers are currently responsible.

“You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said René Olivieri, CEO of Blackwell Publishing, a lead publisher of science journals including Bioethics and the Journal of Zoology. “There needs to be an income stream from the core scientific community, the libraries, the research institutions, and let’s not forget, a lot of the subscriptions are paid for by corporations and scientific laboratories within the private sector. If you give it away for free the income stream dries up. The system of control and value-adding just withers away.”

Olivieri served as co-author on a study released last week—sponsored by Blackwell but carried out by independent researchers—that found scientists rank lack of access 12th in a list of annoyances contributing to a lack of productivity; red tape and lack of funding topped the charts.

If scientists aren’t clamoring for open access publishing, Olivieri said, and the science publishing industry, including academic libraries, is hurt by it, other solutions should be explored.

According to Gunther Eysenbach, a professor in the department of health policy at the University of Toronto, the main weakness of the proposed Federal Research Public Access Act is its inefficiency. It would force authors who have already published their work in open access journals, like the family of journals published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), to go through the motions of republishing in the federal repositories.

“At the end of the day, everything is on the Internet,” Eysenbach said. “It doesn’t make a big difference whether it’s in the federal agency repository or somewhere else on the Internet in an open access journal site.”

For Eysenbach, who recently published an article in PLoS about the benefits of open access publishing, the speed of accessibility is far more important to scientific process than any concerns relating to the viability of the scientific publishing industry.

“Open access really accelerates the scientific process,” he said. “I know few people who wouldn’t prefer to have a cure for cancer or for AIDS in 15 years instead of in 20 years.”

Originally published May 19, 2006


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