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The government spends billions on research. Should we have to pay $20,000 more to see the results?

at 09:00 AM ET, 05/18/2012

Taxpayers fund a ton of government research — and the results can get stuck behind a paywall that tops $20,000. Should they be able to see them without paying a second time around?
(Jonathan Short - AP)

That’s a question Congress could take up, thanks to Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who has introduced bipartisan legislation that requires free, online access to the results of federally funded research six months after it’s been published. “The public has a right to see the results,” he declared from a podium at the Brookings Institute on Wednesday. But opponents of Doyle’s bill say that’s not fair to the journals that actually select the work that’s fit to publish and depend on subscriptions to stay in business.

Doyle and his supporters point out that the best research often ends up being published in prestigious journals with pricey paywalls: Subscription fees can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $20,000 per year. Individual articles can be $50 a pop. As a result, the published work is walled off from the vast majority of Americans — whether they’re a researcher at a cash-strapped lab or an Iowa farmer who wants the latest on a new strain of pest-resistant corn.

It’s not just a question of fairness, but of economic, social and scientific value, the open-access camp argues. “The more people look at a problem, the more ways there are of solving a problem,” added Elliot Maxwell, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s more utility from the research that [the government] pays for.” Maxwell points to studies showing that freely available research is cited more, inspires more follow-up projects and results in more rapidly commercialized products — one example being the open-access Human Genome Project, which scientists have used to link certain genes to diseases more often than its paywalled alternative.

Federal agencies already appear to be moving in this direction: The National Institutes of Health implemented its own open-access policy four years ago, requiring researchers who received NIH grants to make their findings freely available one year after publication. The number of articles downloaded has doubled over the past three years, with about 500,000 visitors on any given weekday in 2011, according to the NIH.

Journal publishers, however, are less than thrilled: They contend that they provide a valuable service by curating what research merits attention and what does not. Through open access, the government is exploiting the journal publishers’ work without compensating them accordingly, argues Allan Adler, a lobbyist for the American Publishers Association. Taxpayers fund national parks, for instance, but “they still have to pay a fee if they want to go in, and certainly if they want to camp,” Adler says. He adds that it’s not just U.S. taxpayers who get to view open-access work for free: Two-thirds of those accessing free NIH papers were outside the United States.

You don’t have to look far to see how the move from paid subscription to open, online access has decimated other sectors of the publishing industry. Adler notes that the small minority of open-access publishers typically have foundation grants or some other source of income to sustain themselves. When asked whether he feared research journals could go the way of print news media, Adler said that journal publishers would simply “feel more comfortable dealing with market challenges by themselves, without the government putting their thumb on the scale.”

Open-access advocates, in turn, argue that an embargo period could let publishers recoup the value of what they provide. Deep-pocketed research institutions would be likely to pay a premium not to wait for results to be publicly released. Maxwell points out that there’s little evidence showing that scientific journals went out of business after the NIH enacted its open-access policy. What’s more, journals could raise their profiles and gain readers by removing their paywalls, he says.

It’s the siren song of the Internet, after all: more readers, higher impact. And for journals that only ever reach a tiny handful of specialists, it could have some appeal. But it’s not a business model that has a great track record so far on the publishers’ side of the equation.

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