Should Taxpayers Be Able To Read the Research They Pay For? Congress Not Sure

February 22, 2012

Congress is unsure of whether the taxpaying public should be allowed to read the scientific research that they have paid for. A bill that would mandate open public access, free of charge, to papers resulting from federally funded research is currently languishing in the GOP-controlled House. Private for-profit publishing companies aim to stop it, preserving their control over the science publishing market.

Science articles are essential fodder for environmental reporters in doing their jobs. It is often very difficult for reporters to read such articles, because they may be housed only in faraway specialized libraries or they may be very expensive to access online.

Rep. Michael F. Doyle (D-PA) introduced the open-access bill (HR 4004) February 9, 2012. It was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has taken no action on it. That panel is headed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).

Issa himself has introduced his own bill (HR 3699), which would have somewhat the opposite effect. It would prohibit open-publishing requirements from being imposed on private journals — with the single exception of federally funded research. No action has been taken on that bill, either.

The bills arrive at a time when an insurrection is beginning to flare up among scientists nationally and worldwide against the control and suppression of scientific information by governments, corporations, and political lobby groups. One of the key targets of the "Open Science" revolt is the scientific publishing industry — particularly the multinational journal-publishing behemoth Elsevier. Elsevier, valued at over $18 billion, is the largest single academic publisher in the world. As such it is a key member of the Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers, which has sought to limit the impact of open-access publishing proposals.

More recently, researchers in many disciplines have organized a boycott of Elsevier. Their main complaint is that the company is using its market power to charge prices that researchers consider prohibitive and unfair, and also using that power to force libraries to buy journals they do not want.

Worldwide, almost 7,000 researchers are currently boycotting Elsevier.

In the United States, open public access to federally funded research is by no means a given. The National Institutes of Health has had an open-publishing policy since 2008. Congress has since enacted it into law — but there have also been unsuccessful Congressional efforts to repeal it. It does not apply to other federal science agencies. SEJ and other groups opposed one such repeal effort in a February 26, 2009, letter.