House Hearing Explores Debate Over Free Access to Journal Articles

The fight over mandating free access to papers based on research funded by taxpayer dollars is again heating up in Washington, D.C. Yesterday, lawmakers discussed expanding the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) "public access" policy to other science-funding agencies.

Although the hearing didn't focus on a specific bill, it touched on two dueling proposals introduced in Congress in recent years. The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), H.R. 5037, builds on NIH's 2-year-old requirement that grantees submit their peer-reviewed manuscripts to the free PubMed Central database for posting within 12 months after publication in a journal. (The 12-month embargo is to protect journals' subscriptions.) The FRPAA bill would extend the policy to 11 other research agencies and shorten the delay to 6 months. Meanwhile, a separate bill, H.R. 801, would block such policies by changing U.S. copyright law.

At yesterday's hearing of the Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Representative Lacy Clay (D–MO), several witnesses expressed concerns that public-access policies could harm journals.

Allan Adler, vice president for government affairs for the Association of American Publishers, said that papers are collaborations between researchers and journals that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to peer review and produce. Policies like NIH's could cause librarians to cancel subscriptions and "substantially weaken an area of our economy," he argued. Adler added that there are already ways for patient groups to get access to articles.

Steve Breckler, executive director for science for the American Psychological Association, worried that even a 12-month delay before posting papers could harm journals in his field because readership of psychology papers remains high for years after they're published.

But other witnesses contended that students, patients' families, and industry scientists are being deprived of access to research articles. Nobel Prize–winning biologist Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs in Massachusetts, claimed that small biotech companies often can't afford subscriptions to all the journals they need. This "is actually impeding science," he said. Neuroscientist Sophia Colamarino said she was cut off from reading journal articles when she left Salk Institute to become vice president for research for the group Autism Speaks, which funds autism research.

NIH's David Lipman, who oversees PubMed Central, said the site now draws 420,000 users each weekday and is speeding discovery by adding links to related articles and genomic databases. Lipman said NIH would be "pleased to help any agency" use the PubMed Central platform to create its own repository.

Besides Clay, only three members of the 11-member subcommittee showed up for portions of the more than 2-hour hearing. Representative Carolyn Maloney (D–NY) sympathized with the publishers, worrying that "we have to protect our intellectual property" and that freely available papers are equivalent to "research that's immediately being sent to another country."

Although the House FPRAA bill has been referred to the subcommittee, no hearing on the bill has been scheduled, and prospects for passage this year seem slim. Public-access advocates are hoping that the White House will act on its own by issuing an executive order or memo requiring that agencies develop public-access policies.

*This article has been corrected to state that before Sophia Colamarino joined Autism Speaks, she was with the Salk Institute, not Stanford University, where she is a current faculty member.