By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
A smoldering debate over whether taxpayers should have free access to the results of federally financed research intensified yesterday with the introduction of Senate legislation that would mandate that the information be posted on the Internet.
The legislation, which would demand that most recipients of federal grants make their findings available free on the Web within six months after they are published in a peer-reviewed journal, represents a rebuke to scientific publishers, who have asserted that free access to their contents would undercut their paid subscription base.
It also signifies that some members of Congress have lost patience with a voluntary plan initiated a year ago by the National Institutes of Health. That plan encouraged but did not require recipients of NIH grants to make their findings public within a year after publication. In the first six months of that program, only about 4 percent of eligible researchers bothered to do so.
Subscriptions to journals can cost hundreds of dollars or more a year. And although most publishers sell individual articles for $15 to $45 apiece, those charges can add up for someone researching, for example, a recently diagnosed disease.
The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), goes considerably further than the NIH program. In addition to requiring public access within six months, not 12, it would apply to research funded by all 11 federal agencies that provide at least $100 million in outside funding per year -- a category that includes the departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Homeland Security as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Heather Joseph, executive director at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a D.C.-based organization of research and academic libraries, lauded the legislation.
"It's good to see an expanded interest by Congress in securing taxpayer access to federally funded research," she said, predicting that scientists, too, would benefit. "Expanded access to research really will help accelerate innovation and discovery."
Peter Suber, director of the open access project at Public Knowledge, an information policy advocacy group in the District, echoed that view: "It's a very, very good bill," he said. "I think it's wonderful news."
But Patricia S. Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, promised a fight. "It is frustrating that we can't seem to get across to people how expensive it is to do the peer review, edit these articles and put them into a form everyone can understand," Schroeder said.
In the age of the Internet, everyone wants everything free, Schroeder said. "But we can't figure out what exactly the business model would be. And if you just got the raw research, you wouldn't have a clue" how to use it, she said.
Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society in Bethesda, which like other small scientific organizations counts on journal profits to support its educational programs, also complained about the bill.
"It's unnecessary legislation," Frank said, adding that many publishers are gradually moving on their own to make at least some of their contents freely available.