Publisher argues free access to research violates administration's transparency initiative

Fewer peer-reviewed science articles and canceled journal subscriptions are concerns.

Free online access to federally funded research articles defies the White House's open government directive, a journal publisher told House members at a hearing on Thursday.

A December 2009 presidential memo on transparency in government instructed federal agencies to abide by the precepts of public disclosure, civic engagement in policymaking and collaboration with the private sector, but not at the expense of national security, privacy or "other genuinely compelling interests."

The American Psychological Association, which publishes scientific articles, believes the future of scientific publishing is among the "genuinely compelling interests," Steven Breckler, executive director for science at the association, testified before the House Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives. The panel invited publishers, scientists, Internet users who have benefited from online research and a federal official to examine the possibility of increasing free online access to scholarly journal articles derived from federally funded research.

Breckler said the potential ramifications of open access policies, including one recently established at the National Institutes of Health, include reducing the number of peer reviewed journals, a publishing model where the author must pay to be published, and commercial repackaging of content that otherwise would be protected by copyright. One of the major concerns publishers raised is federal funds do not cover the costs of peer review, which is a service the APA journal provides to readers by coordinating a panel of experts to vet a prospective author's research before publishing it.

But a mother of two children diagnosed with a rare disease, who also testified at the hearing, said access to such articles has been critical to treating their illness. Sharon Terry, president and chief executive officer of Genetic Alliance, an organization that promotes the free exchange of genetic research, learned in 1994 that her children had pseudoxanthoma elasticum, an inherited disease that affects connective tissue in some parts of the body.

At the time, "my husband, a trade school graduate, and I, a college chaplain, stole access to medical libraries, and hacked into Internet [sites], and ultimately read 400 articles on this disease. As a result of what we learned, we . . . cloned the gene, created a diagnostic test and initiated clinical trials . . . Imagine if we have public access to all scientific articles," she said.

Breckler said everyone should have access to scientific articles that are the product of federally funded research. But the "fundamental question is who bears the responsibility for the costs associated with producing scientific publications," he testified. "The current public misunderstanding is that those costs are either inconsequential, or that the federal government already bears those costs. Neither is true."

Congress in 2007 mandated NIH-funded researchers to submit copies of their peer-reviewed journal articles to PubMed Central, an online, free archive of life sciences journal literature, once their work has been accepted for publication. Researchers are allowed to request that NIH delay posting their articles publicly for a year. A new bill (H.R.5037) pending in the subcommittee would require every agency spending more than $100 million on research to provide the public with free online access to manuscripts stemming from such studies within six months after publication.

Opponents of the measure argue it would undermine the nation's efforts to boost employment and maintain U.S. leadership in science by taking away publishers' key source of income. Journal subscriptions account for about 90 percent of all academic publishers' revenue and surveys indicate that librarians likely would cancel subscriptions if even some of a journal's manuscripts were available for free online, testified Allan Adler, vice president for government affairs at the Association of American Publishers.

"Government mandates requiring free access to private sector products will stifle innovation in what is now a rapidly changing environment, both by decreasing the amount that publishers are able to invest and reducing their incentive to explore new approaches," he added.

Subcommittee Chairman William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., questioned an NIH official about the organization of the PubMed Central website.

"What do you think about requiring the government to link to the original journal's website in order to read the articles?" he asked David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at NIH.

Lipman cautioned the lawmaker against decentralizing access to the research. "We really need to have long-term archiving," he said, adding, "When the content is not being used directly on your site, when there are problems, [in accessing a link] we just can't find that out."

In the two years that NIH has provided open access to federally funded researchers' articles, NIH has not witnessed any dramatic changes in the life sciences journal publishing industry, Lipman said. "On the other hand, we have a heck of a lot more articles that are now being intensively used by people around the United States," he added. Of the approximately 700,000 articles added to PubMed Central since 2008, when the policy kicked in, about 130,000 discuss NIH-funded research. Simultaneously, usage has doubled since 2008, jumping from 10 million to 20 million articles retrieved per month, he said.

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist who testified said he depends on digital scientific literature, but the small biotech firm where he works cannot afford subscriptions to all the journals it needs.

"I read articles in a large number of different journals and am acutely aware of the difficulties accessing articles that are not available via open access," said Richard J. Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs and the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine for the discovery of split genes. "I often find myself paying the $30 or more that is necessary to read an article in a journal to which my company does not subscribe."