Most Recent Action
Current Congress

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Public Access to Federally-funded Scientific Research (11/30/04)

Most Recent Action

Congress approved H.R. 4818, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY 2005 on Saturday, November 20th. Buried in the depths of this monumental piece of legislation were Congress' comments about the NIH open access model. The report, H. Rept. 108-792, stated the following:
"The conferees are aware of the draft NIH policy on increasing public access to NIH-funded research. Under this policy, NIH would request investigators to voluntarily submit electronically the final, peer reviewed author's copy of their scientific manuscripts; six months after the publisher's date of publication, NIH would make this copy publicly available through PubMed Central. The policy is intended to help ensure the permanent preservation of NIH-funded research and make it more readily accessible to scientists, physicians, and the public. The conferees note that the comment period for the draft policy ended November 16th; NIH is directed to give full and fair consideration to all comments before publishing its final policy. The conferees request NIH to provide the estimated costs of implementing this policy each year in its annual Justification of Estimates to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In addition, the conferees direct NIH to continue to work with the publishers of scientific journals to maintain the integrity of the peer review system." (11/30/04)

Previous Action

Representative Martin O. Sabo (D-MN) introduced legislation on June 27, 2003 that would remove copyright protection for any research that is "substantially funded" by the federal government. The bill, H.R. 2613, would expand an exemption that currently applies only to government employees. Without the copyright protection, the public would be assured free access to scientific research produced with their tax dollars. "This is a good idea whose time is overdue," Sabo said. "We only progress as a society when research is available to all of our best minds at any time. Citizens should have access to publicly funded research anytime." According to the American Institute of Biological Sciences, "Sabo's bill is part of a campaign by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a non-profit organization of scientists and physicians, to make the world's scientific and medical literature a public resource." PLoS is concerned that full access to the latest research is only available to a "privileged elite at large universities and research institutions who can afford the often exorbitant subscription fees." In addition to Sabo's bill, when the House passed legislation that will fund the National Library of Medicine next year, they included language instructing the Library to look into ways to make federally funded research more available to the public.

Although the current attention is on biomedical literature, the bill would impact other disciplines as well. And whereas the focus is on prohibitively high subscription rates charged by commercial publishers, journals also represent a significant revenue source for scientific and engineering societies. As a result, this legislation has been greeted with considerable concern by many societies. More on PLoS at (9/4/03)

The process of scientific documentation though peer review and journal publication, an accepted standard for centuries, is now under scrutiny from the academic community as a result of the internet.

Traditionally, scientists pursued professional advancement by submitting papers to prestigious academic journals, which are then published after a rigorous peer review process. This peer review process, which according to Dr. Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist at the University of Southahampton, accounts for 10 - 30% of publishing costs, is largely paid for by subscription fees. On August 5 The Economist called the academic publishing industry "impressive," adding that there are, "over 2,000 publishers in what is called STM (scientific, technological and medical) publishing alone. Together, they publish 1.2m articles a year in about 16,000 periodical journals".

Recently, members of the scientific community have raised concerns over skyrocketing subscription fees compared with a relatively unchanged level of academic output. For example, Cornell University has seen its library budget increase 149% from 1986 to 2001 while its volume of periodicals has increased a modest 5%. The reason for this trend lies in fact that the most prestigious journals hold a virtual monopoly on cutting edge research, upon which they retain a permanent copyright. Therefore, these journals offer access to essential research at fees immune to competitive market forces. Universities find themselves with no alternative to purchasing costly journal subscriptions often at the expense of smaller publications.

However, a revolt is brewing, led by scientists and policy makers calling for free open access to scientific journals though the internet. In late July, the House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations endorsed open access to material published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would require that all published articles be archived into an online database called PubMed Central within six months of publication. This flows from the idea that research funded through the public sector, which encompasses all public universities and research institutions, should be available to the public free of charge. This model, which is already established in the U.K. under the name of BioMed Central, will also soon be the policy of Germany's Max Planck Society.

Some policy makers have suggested a generalization of the House of Representatives' PubMed Central proposal to all academic publications. Under this system, traditional journals would be allowed a short term monopoly after which the intellectual property would become public domain. According to The Economist, Industry insiders have resisted this push, suggesting that, "the demand for open access to research findings could undermine the sustainability of the publishing industry". The Economist went on to suggest that government regulation could end windfall profits for publishers and allow for a new hierarchy of prestige in the open access arena. (9/8/04)

In mid-August, the Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union, Fred Spilhaus, penned a Letter to the Editor of The Economist. The letter is below:

SIR - Your article on "open access" to scientific literature is shockingly one-sided ("Access all areas", August 7th). As with most utopian visions it contains fatal flaws. Open access depends upon payment for all costs of publication by the author, or the supporter of the research, to replace the income currently made from subscribers. In many countries, government would become the principal source of funds for science publication. This sets up a system that can be politically controlled. Will researchers be allowed to publish politically incorrect work in subjects ranging from embryos to global change? Will interference such as forbidding co-authorship with residents of the state's enemies, as happens in America under the guise of financial sanctions, become the norm?

An author-pays model is also likely to lower overall quality, as publishers who are willing to sacrifice quality for profit lower standards to gain market share. There will be a reduction of useful access because we will all be scavenging in a huge garbage heap. There are disciplines, notably mathematics and some areas of theory, that are not funded well enough to support a non-subscription model of publication. It may be easy to find money in a large space or medical programme but what about the lone scientist working in his garret?

Do we really believe that a new economic model for science publishing should be legislated? Or should it be grown from the best that the scholarly community can do within its own marketplace? Much is being done within the current system to enhance distribution for scientists worldwide and to reach the public. These goals require much more than open access.

Fred Spilhaus
Executive director
American Geophysical Union
Washington, DC (9/8/04)

On September 9, 2004 the House of Representatives approved the FY2005 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations bill. Accompanying this bill was a report issued by the subcommittee. Traditionally, reports that accompany appropriations bills are non-binding because they are not law; however, most agencies pay very close attention to their contents. This report contained language about PubMed Central, an online storehouse of life science articles maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

First, the Committee praised PubMed Central saying, "The Committee commends NLM for its leadership in developing PubMed Central, an electronic online repository for life science articles. Because of the high level of expertise health information specialists have in the organization, collection, and dissemination of medical information, the Committee believes that health sciences librarians have a key role to play in the further development of PubMed Central. The Committee encourages NLM to work with the medical library community regarding issues related to copyright, fair use, peer-review and classification of information on PubMed Central."

The Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee extended their remarks about PubMed Central by saying, "The Committee is very concerned that there is insufficient public access to reports and data resulting from NIH-funded research. This situation, which has been exacerbated by the dramatic rise in scientific journal subscription prices, is contrary to the best interests of the U.S. taxpayers who paid for this research. The Committee is aware of a proposal to make the complete text of articles and supplemental materials generated by NIH-funded research available on PubMed Central (PMC), the digital library maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM). The Committee supports this proposal and recommends that NIH develop a policy, to apply from FY 2005 forward, requiring that a complete electronic copy of any manuscript reporting work supported by NIH grants or contracts be provided to PMC upon acceptance of the manuscript for publication in any scientific journal listed in the NLM's PubMed directory. Under this proposal, NLM would commence making these reports, together with supplemental materials, freely and continuously available six months after publication, or immediately in cases in which some or all of the publication costs are paid with NIH grant funds. For this purpose, `publication costs' would include fees charged by a publisher, such as color and page charges, or fees for digital distribution. NIH is instructed to submit a report to the Committee by December 1, 2004 about how it intends to implement this policy, including how it will ensure the reservation of rights by the NIH grantee, if required, to permit placement of the article in PMC and to allow appropriate public uses of this literature."

The Senate's version of the bill and the accompanying report, which were approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on September 15th, contained no such language. (9/17/04)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a notice of intent and request for comments in the Federal Register on September 17th. The notice announces NIH's plans to enhance public access to NIH health-related research information. NIH proposes to have all grantees and supported Principal Investigators provide the NIH with electronic copies of final manuscripts that have been peer-reviewed, modified and readied for publication. According to the notice in the Federal Register, NIH will archive these manuscripts in PubMed Central and each will be made freely available to the public six months after publication. If the publisher agrees, the manuscript may be made freely available sooner. The NIH is encouraging persons, groups and organizations to comment on its intentions and proposal by logging onto Alternately, comments may be e-mailed to or sent via U.S. postal mail to NIH Public Access Comments, National Institutes of Health, Office of Extramural Research, 6705 Rockledge Drive, Room 350, Bethesda, MD 20892-7963. Comments must be received on or before November 16, 2004. (9/21/04)

On Tuesday, October 26th AGI's Government Affairs Program sent a Special Update about this issue to its member societies and other interested parties. To read the Special Update, click here. (10/26/04)

On November 8th, the British government rejected most of the recommendations by a parliamentary committee that favored making the results of state-supported scientific research freely available. The committee released a report in July supporting that approach, known as open access, as a remedy for journals' increasing subscription prices and for the growing restrictions on access to publicly financed research. In a response dated November 1 but made public on Monday, November 8th, the government asserted that it "is not aware that there are major problems in accessing scientific information," and that the publishing industry is both "healthy and competitive."

In its original report, "Scientific Publications: Free for All?," the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons recommended that all research papers be made freely available in digital archives and that the government continue to experiment with an author-pays publishing model, under which authors or research institutions pay to publish papers that are then distributed at no charge.

On both counts the government refused to intervene. In its response, it supported the establishment of digital archives at research institutions, but it argued that "each institution has to make its own decision about institutional repositories depending on individual circumstances." And the government said it had not seen enough evidence to support further explorations of author-pays publishing. The government document, according to the committee, represents "a distillation of responses from all the government departments and other government organizations that have an interest" in the committee's recommendations.

While some lawmakers accused the government of bowing to pressure from commercial publishers, others called it "a clear statement of support for the current market and the current system, which confirms that the publishing market is competitive and innovative."

Britain is responsible for 5.3 percent of all articles published in scientific, technological, and medical journals around the world, and a governmental commitment to open access would constitute a major victory for the movement's backers. But, even without official endorsement from the government, the councils that disburse public funds for research may elect to follow the parliamentary committee's suggestions. The research councils are in the process of reviewing their strategy and are expected to issue a plan in January. Following that, the government will release a second response to the committee, this time addressing statements from the research councils, library associations, and private sources of research funds that have endorsed open access. (11/12/04)


Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that most of the 50,000 to 60,000 research articles published each year as a result of federally funded science ends up in the hands of for-profit publishers that charge $15-50 to view the results of a single study online. In response to such practices, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a non-profit organization of scientists and physicians, launched a campaign aimed at making the world's scientific and medical literature a public resource. The founders include Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel Prize in 1989 for his work with cancer viruses, headed the National Institutes of Health from 1993 to 1999 and is now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; Patrick O. Brown, a genomics expert at Stanford University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Michael Eisen, a computation and evolutionary biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Unviersity of California at Berkeley. Other supporters include DNA discoverer James Watson and the renowned sociobiologist and author E.O. Wilson. Flush with a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, they have hired editors and reviewers and began publishing PLoS Biology in October, 2003. There are plans to launch PLoS Medicine in 2004.

As reported by AIBS, PLoS Biology "will compete with prominent publications such as Science, Nature, and Cell to publish the most significant works of biomedical research. Unlike these established journals, all works published by PLoS Biology will be immediately and freely available."

Their experiment takes recent publishing industry developments regarding public access to another level. In the past few years, several journals have widened their access. Most online publications allow free searching and reading of titles and abstracts, and researchers have reprints to give out on request. Many make their journals freely available to scientists in developing countries. Some release results freely to everyone six to 12 months after publication. This interval of time allows the scientific community at large to debate and reproduce studies, a process integral to the advancement of science. But critics say that the delay is unnecessary and would deprive scientists and others of the latest and best information. Ira Mellman, chairman of Yale's Department of Cell Biology and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Cell Biology, explained the budding congressional interest in this topic when he told The Washington Post that, "saying you're for free access is like motherhood and apple pie." But Mellman also cautioned elected officials against leaping into this debate at a tenuous time because the PLoS model is just beginning and cannot yet be called successful. Until this "publishing experiment" is concluded, policymakers should not force any particular model on the entire industry.

That industry is made up of roughly 28,000 different journals and each publishes original research that can be found nowhere else. As a group, they perform the same basic tasks: communicate findings; control quality by peer review; create a historical record and document authorship. Due to mergers in recent years, some commercial mega-publishers have emerged. Due to their monopoly on the information and the marketplace for it, subscription rates have increased by leaps and bounds -- sometimes as much as 25 to 35 percent per year according to Michael Keller, who oversees the libraries at Stanford University. Commercial publishers generally charge between $1,000 and $5,000 for a one-year subscription to their journals. Highly specialized journals in crucial fields can be even more expensive -- The Washington Post reported that the one-year subscription for Brain Research costs $20,000. Publishers have defended themselves by pointing out the real costs associated with publishing a journal -- articles must be peer reviewed, edited and formatted; there are websites and databases to maintain. In short, quality control comes with a price.

PLoS is seeking to change the way the scientific publishing world does business. Instead of having readers pay to read scientific results, scientists who are having their work published would pay $1,500 per article for publication and the dissemination of their research. This cost would be incurred up-front and, ostensibly, rolled into the amount of the grant that was bestowed on the scientist to conduct the research.

Smaller, not-for-profit publishers are eyeing these developments carefully. They are looking for the smallest hint of exodus when PLoS Biology is released in October. They are also annoyed that Congress would try to impose standards on their industry (before the PLoS model is deemed a success or a failure) that would run them out of business. Further consolidation of the industry would likely happen, giving the large publishers even more of a monopoly. This runs contrary to America's trust-busting past and is not good for science, either.

Sources: Public Library of Science; The Washington Post; The American Institute of Biological Sciences; The Economist; The Chronicle

Contributed by Emily Lehr Wallace, AGI Government Affairs Staff and David Millar, AGI/AAPG 2004 Fall Semester Intern

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last revised on November 12, 2004