Bill demands free public access to science reports

Articles about federally funded research would have to appear online 6 months after publication

Two senators have introduced a bill requiring that manuscripts of articles based on taxpayer-funded science research appear online and be available free to the public six months after they appear in scientific journals. Some publishers argue that the bill could jeopardize the peer-review process and the livelihood of corporate and nonprofit journal publishers.

The bill’s co-sponsors, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), announced the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 earlier this month. It mandates that agencies with annual research budgets of more than $100 million to implement a public access policy granting swift access to research supported by those agencies.

The access policy would require any researcher funded by certain agencies to submit an electronic copy of the final manuscript accepted for publication.

The legislation also directs agencies to preserve the manuscripts in a stable, digital repository that ensures free public access, interoperability and long-term preservation.

The legislation covers 11 agencies: the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Transportation departments; the Environmental Protection Agency; NASA; and the National Science Foundation.

A year ago, the National Institutes of Health implemented a similar but less stringent policy that asks NIH-funded scientists to voluntarily submit copies of their peer-reviewed research manuscripts to NIH’s online archive, known as PubMed Central. Those manuscripts are made available to the public for free on the PubMed Central Web site within a year of publication.

However, teachers, patients, businesses and anyone not affiliated with a research institution typically must visit a library or pay for a journal subscription to gain access to much of the latest publicly funded research, according to advocates of the new bill.

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said the proposed legislation would solidify and expedite what NIH is attempting with its public access policy. “I think it’s a very measured, temperate kind of a bill,” she said. “This is the first real bill that’s asking for the manuscripts of published articles, not the articles themselves. I think that’s an important distinction.”

Published articles, unlike final manuscripts, are copy edited, formatted, tagged and linked to other resources. But some publishers believe the six-month provision will disrupt their business models, and they remain skeptical that legislation is needed.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs at the Association of American Publishers (AAP). “There have been no studies demonstrating that there is a problem with respect to access to the peer-reviewed results of government-funded research.”

He added that the government has not made any assessment of the extent to which the six-month provision will affect journal circulation or revenue.

Mandating that manuscripts of journal articles be freely available on government Web sites so soon after their publication could discourage publishers from continuing to invest in the peer-review process, said Brian Crawford, chairman of AAP’s Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division and a senior vice president at the American Chemical Society, and other AAP members.

That process “ensures the integrity of the very research the U.S. government is trying to support and disseminate,” Crawford said.

AAP is urging that an independent study be conducted to measure the bill’s potential impact on scientific quality, the peer-review process, and the financial standing of journals and nonprofit societies, as well as the costs taxpayers would shoulder under the bill.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Cornyn, said “If [publishers] can point to some economic data about [the bill’s potential impact on publishers], that would certainly inform the debate. Then the senator would take a look at that. The economic benefit to the taxpayer is already present.”

Expanded access to research could require investmentLegislation mandating that taxpayer-funded research be made publicly available would require agencies to maintain databases of the manuscripts.

The costs of creating those databases, however, are low compared to the agencies’ overall research budgets, said staffers for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the bill’s sponsors.

The National Institutes of Health has said that operating costs for its PubMed Central archive are about $2 million to $4 million annually, which is about 0.01 percent of its annual budget of about $28 billion. NIH created PubMed voluntarily, but the bill permits agencies to share repositories or use existing systems.

“This is a very small investment to make to leverage the much larger return that expanded access will provide,” said John Drogin, a spokesman for Cornyn.

— Aliya Sternstein

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