Scholars, publishers battle over access to agency research

A lobbying battle that has gone on for nearly a decade between academia and the publishing industry over public access to taxpayer-funded research is now at the White House’s front door.

In a matter of weeks, open-access advocates have gathered more than 26,000 signatures for a petition on the White House’s “We the People” website — above the threshold that triggers an automatic response from the Obama administration. The petition calls on President Obama to “require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research” for all federal agencies.


Publishers and many in the science and health research fields have been tussling over the issue since 2004, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began looking at releasing to the public peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that used agency-funded research. Both sides have been engaging with Congress since then, often hoping to negate the other with targeted legislation.

“The only way the taxpayers can get access to this information is to pay again to get access to these journals to see research they have already funded,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).

In 2008, Congress required NIH to release the articles, and the agency has since created an online database for the public. Supporters of the NIH policy want to see it adopted elsewhere in the federal government.

“Let’s get this expanded to other federal agencies. It seems easy, right? Not so much with the publishing lobby,” Joseph said.

Joseph and others have clashed with the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and several of its member companies, including Elsevier, over access to the articles.

“Does the government ever get in the business of telling The New York Times or The Washington Post how to report about research that used taxpayer funds?” said Allan Adler, AAP’s vice president for legal and government affairs.

Adler said publishers are not party to the research funding agreements made between researchers and the government.

“Why should those conditions impact the publisher who doesn’t accept any funding from the government to publish the articles or work with the researcher to make that article fit for publication?” Adler said.

Advocates for releasing the research articles campaigned on Twitter to gather signatures for the White House petition. Using the hashtag #oamonday, supporters tweeted other users and directed them to the petition. They also tried to drum up support on reddit, Tumblr and Facebook.

Sharon Terry, president and CEO of the Genetic Alliance — a health advocacy organization that includes researchers, physicians and those living with disease — said researchers should have quicker access to the journal articles.

“We need to accelerate people’s access to therapies and diagnostics. So the more eyes on this information, the quicker we will get to solutions for people suffering from disease,” Terry said.

Publishers say releasing the taxpayer-funded research articles free to the public wouldn’t take into account the value added by editing, peer review and marketing.

“The NIH wants credit for these materials and making them available to the public, but the NIH isn’t responsible for producing these materials, which are works that are jointly created by the author and the publisher,” Adler said. 

Publishing companies have also been active in the debate.

A spokesman for Elsevier — the scholarly publishing subsidiary of Reed Elsevier — declined to comment for this piece, but pointed to a March 5 letter sent to Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) signed by nearly 90 trade groups and companies.

That letter said legislation that would expand access to taxpayer-funded research articles — known as the Federal Research Public Access Act — was the “wrong approach.”

Elsevier, the McGraw-Hill Companies and Cambridge University Press were among those that signed the letter.

The bill, which has been introduced in the House and Senate, would have agencies with annual budgets of $100 million or more for funding research outside of the government release research articles to the public within six months. That’s faster than NIH, which releases articles within 12 months.

Adler said the bill could affect the Defense Department, the Agriculture Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

Adler said AAP wants “widespread access to research” and supports an effort by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to find a consensus among stakeholders for maximizing public access to taxpayer-funded research.

Adler said several publishers don’t advertise, depend on reader subscriptions for revenue and publish articles on differing timelines.

“Government has no specific knowledge of the business considerations involved here for the publisher,” Adler said.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), the bill’s main sponsor in the House, disagreed.

“Publishers do add value, so I think it’s fair that they recoup their costs. We give them six months of exclusivity where they should be able to recoup those costs,” Doyle said. “We are not trying to put publishers out of business. We are just saying that they don’t have exclusive rights to research funded by taxpayers.”

Legislation that would have countered the NIH policy — the Research Works Act — was introduced last year. The bill would have banned agencies from disseminating private-sector research work without the publisher’s consent.

The bill met a fierce backlash and its two main sponsors, Issa and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), put a statement in the Congressional Record in February that said they would not move forward on the legislation. That same day in February, Elsevier put out a statement withdrawing support for the bill.

It’s not clear if or when the White House will respond to the petition. Some petitions that have reached the signature threshold still haven’t received an administration reply.

Doyle is working to gather more supporters for his bill, which he said has 31 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

“The support for the bill is growing and this is where it’s headed. It’s inevitable,” Doyle said. “We are going to stay on it until it’s passed.”