Journalism in the Public Interest

New Bill Would Put Taxpayer-Funded Science Behind Pay Walls

Want to read the results of the biomedical research you helped pay for? You can find it for free. Now, two House members have introduced a bill — with the backing of big medical publishers — that would force taxpayers to pay for access.


(Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images)

Right now, if you want to read the published results of the biomedical research that your own tax dollars paid for, all you have to do is visit the digital archive of the National Institutes of Health. There you’ll find thousands of articles on the latest discoveries in medicine and disease, all free of charge.

A new bill in Congress wants to make you pay for that, thank you very much. The Research Works Act would prohibit the NIH from requiring scientists to submit their articles to the online database. Taxpayers would have to shell out $15 to $35 to get behind a publisher’s paid site to read the full research results. A Scientific American blog said it amounts to paying twice.

Two members of Congress — Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. — introduced the bill. Rebecca Rosen ofThe Atlantic finds it curious that Issa, a well-known champion of the open Internet whose own website displays the words “keep the web #OPEN,” would back a bill that appears to be the polar opposite of open access.

As Michael Eisen, a University of California, Berkeley, biologist and open access supporter, notes, Maloney's support seems no less mystifying since she represents “a liberal Democratic district in New York City that is home to many research institutions.”

Both Issa and Maloney have received campaign contributions from the Dutch company Elsevier, which calls itself the world’s leading publisher of scientific and medical information. According to MapLight, a website that tracks political cash, Elsevier and its senior executives last year made 31 contributions to House members totaling $29,500. Twelve contributions totaling $8,500 went to Maloney; Issa received two for a total of $2,000.

This isn’t the first effort by publishers to push Congress to roll back the NIH’s public access policy, which was enacted in 2008 and applauded by doctors, patients, librarians, teachers and students. Under the policy, all research funded by the NIH was required to be made freely available to the public one year after publication on PubMed Central. (The NIH also runs PubMed, a biomedical research database that includes articles that aren’t federally funded and cost money to access.)

In 2009, as Eisen notes, the Association of American Publishers backed the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act. That bill never left committee, but this new bill is essentially a shorter version of the same thing (and was similarly praised by the AAP for forbidding “federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles”).

Two arguments in favor of the bill crop up regularly:

  1. Publishers like Elsevier add value to every scientific journal article by overseeing the peer-review, editing and publishing process. Because of this contribution, they deserve exclusive rights to each article permanently, not merely one year after it has been published. Tom Reller, vice president for global corporate relations at Elsevier, comments here that Elsevier and other commercial and nonprofit publishers invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in managing the publication of journal articles.”
  2. Publishing companies need this money to keep the industry going. As the AAP states: “At a time when job retention, U.S. exports, scholarly excellence, scientific integrity and digital copyright protection are all priorities, the Research Works Act ensures the sustainability of this industry.”

In the recent commotion over the bill (here’s a roundup of recent posts), the academic community has replied to both of these claims.

In response to the added value argument, Kevin Smith, scholarly communications officer at Duke University, argues that publishers don’t actually produce or add much themselves. The work comes from academics and from the peer reviewers who volunteer their time to read and critique the work of their fellow academics. According to Eisen, although publishers might contribute a little something to the peer-review process (organization, supervision, etc.), this pales in comparison to the work done for free.

In response to the jobs and industry argument, Heather Morrison, a doctoral candidate at the Simon Fraser University School of Communication in Vancouver, B.C., points out that the top scientific, technical and medical publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Informa) have seen profit margins of 30 percent to 35 percent in the last year. Elsevier, part of a global multibillion-dollar information conglomerate with offices in New York City, publishes about 1,800 journals and last year made a profit of $1.1 billion.

The Economist makes the same point: The industry seems to be doing just fine. Furthermore, there is evidence that more jobs would come from open policies than from closed ones, says Peter Suber, an open access advocate at Harvard University.

In his response to a recent White House request for information on public access in research, Harvard Provost Alan Garber calls the current situation an “access crisis.” He argues that public access is crucial to growing businesses, which need access to cutting-edge research to stimulate innovation, develop new products, improve existing ones, and create jobs.

“If the NIH policy is flawed,” writes Garber, “it is for allowing needlessly long delays before the public gains access to this body of publicly funded research, and for allowing needless restrictions on the public use and reuse of this research.”

$2,000 to buy a politician? I didn’t know some of our elected representatives were available so cheap.

Philip de Louraille

Jan. 12, 2012, 11:29 a.m.

This bill is ill-conceived. I’d be curious to know how many “contributions” have been granted by the publishing industry to Issa & Maloney so they would push that bill.

Article:  “A new bill in Congress wants to make you pay for that, thank you very much. The Research Works Act [2] would prohibit the NIH from requiring scientists to submit their articles to the online database. Taxpayers would have to shell out $15 to $35 [3] to get behind a publisher’s paid site to read the full research results. A Scientific American blog said it amounts to paying twice. [4]”

Our corrupt Congress at work.  The bill sponsors want taxpayers to pay for something they have already financed; something that is currently available to them at no charge.  They want to end a requirement for scientists to post publicly financed research onto a public database maintained by the NIH, limiting the public’s access to available scientific information.  The Democratic sponsor appears to have a serious (financial) interest in this; Issa is a GOP hack, and this suits his anti-government (aka, anti-citizen) agenda.

“Both Issa and Maloney have received campaign contributions from the Dutch company Elsevier [8], which calls itself the world’s leading publisher of scientific and medical information. According to MapLight [9], a website that tracks political cash, Elsevier and its senior executives last year made 31 contributions [10] to House members totaling $29,500. Twelve contributions totaling $8,500 went to Maloney; Issa received two for a total of $2,000.”

Thank you ProPublica for keeping the kictchen lights on while the cockroaches scramble.

This is the core problem in Washington today.  Nobody working in this government understands that freeing information provides the greatest benefit to the economy by a wide margin.  It’s why SOPA and PIPA are under strong consideration by Congress.  It’s how bills like this get resurrected.  It’s how Bradley Manning gets jailed for a year with a public smear campaign.  Our government believes it has the right and responsibility to limit what we mere mortals are allowed to learn.

The success of the Apollo program wasn’t that we put a few clowns up on the Moon to plant a flag and play golf.  It was that the designs and data released improved computers, gave households nonstick pans, improved fuel efficiency and ventilation systems, and gave the medical industry a shot in the arm WHILE putting a few clowns up on the Moon.  I believe the figure is that we got a 2000% return on that investment, all said and done, and that number continues to grow today.  It made the modern world possible.

Even for routine information, this isn’t a hypothetical benefit.  In Europe, most governments maintain a copyright on public-funded research data.  In the United States, it’s put into the public domain.  Europe doesn’t have businesses leveraging postal databases, census information, and satellite maps.  In the United States, content like that packaged into products accounts for a few hundred million dollars of our GDP, and that was a number prior to Google’s rise.

(Likewise, Europe allows copyrights on data itself, like a phone directory.  After a year of that law being in effect, the number of database-like products dropped like a rock, whereas they sprout like weeds on this side of the Atlantic.)

In other words, common ownership of government-funded data provably creates jobs and expands the economy.  Opposing that, hiding it behind fees, is a rejection of American jobs and an assertion that poor people shouldn’t even be allowed to learn some things.

From one of the few vocal opponents of SOPA, opposing the blacklist system based on the enormous loss of tech-sector jobs through the effective loss of Fair Use (due to the mechanism the bill offers), it’s bizarre to see Issa’s name on this…at the request of a small foreign company, no less.

Duh—ok dorge, let’s keep people stupid—we are rapidly devolving into a fascist state—Issa and company should outright be fired

medical copyeditor

Jan. 12, 2012, 6:20 p.m.

The funniest thing is that Elsevier is known in the industry for not caring at all about articles being copyedited. Neither Elsevier nor Wolters Kluwer employs a large staff of copyeditors, as they used to. They now subcontract that work out, when it’s done at all, to the printers of the journals, who in turn use freelance copyeditors who are paid so little that they don’t do a very good job.

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

Jan. 12, 2012, 7:41 p.m.

Information in nature is free. It should be free in society, too.

Very important article; but one flaw—what committee was the bill introduced in?  People can write to it to oppose the bill.

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Twitter: wjkno1

Members of Congress spend 30-70% of their time fundraising.  Parties who can donate to a political campaign—or assist an incumbent by holding a fundraiser—can have much more influence over government policy than a voter.  The campaign finance system is broken, and this ridiculous bill is just an example of what has gone wrong.

To learn more, read Lawrence Lessig’s “Republic, Lost”.

Jawaralal Schwartz

Jan. 12, 2012, 8:41 p.m.

Er, less than half of adult citizens in this country actually pay any taxes.

But they should get free access anyway.

Another perspective on our byzantine system of scientific publishing is that of the scientist: we do the research, write the reports, produce essentially publication-ready copy, and critique the journal submissions of our colleagues (peer review), all at zero cost to publishers.

And to develop background for these papers we write, we or our institutions have to pay non-trivial sums to get access to our colleagues’ publications, and sometimes to our own.

“Research Works Act H.R.3699:
The Private Publishing Tail Trying To Wag The Public Research Dog, Yet Again”


The US Research Works Act (H.R.3699): “No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that—(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.”

Translation and Comments:

“If public tax money is used to fund research, that research becomes “private research” once a publisher “adds value” to it by managing the peer review.”

[Comment: Researchers do the peer review for the publisher for free, just as researchers give their papers to the publisher for free, together with the exclusive right to sell subscriptions to it, on-paper and online, seeking and receiving no fee or royalty in return].

“Since that public research has thereby been transformed into “private research,” and the publisher’s property, the government that funded it with public tax money should not be allowed to require the funded author to make it accessible for free online for those users who cannot afford subscription access.”

[Comment: The author’s sole purpose in doing and publishing the research, without seeking any fee or royalties, is so that all potential users can access, use and build upon it, in further research and applications, to the benefit of the public that funded it; this is also the sole purpose for which public tax money is used to fund research.]”

H.R. 3699 misunderstands the secondary, service role that peer-reviewed research journal publishing plays in US research and development and its (public) funding.

It is a huge miscalculation to weigh the potential gains or losses from providing or not providing open access to publicly funded research in terms of gains or losses to the publishing industry: Lost or delayed research progress mean losses to the growth and productivity of both basic research and the vast R&D industry in all fields, and hence losses to the US economy as a whole.

What needs to be done about public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research?

The minimum policy is for all US federal funders to mandate (require), as a condition for receiving public funding for research, that: (i) the fundee’s revised, accepted refereed final draft of (ii) all refereed journal articles resulting from the funded research must be (iii) deposited immediately upon acceptance for publication (iv) in the fundee’’s institutional repository, with (v) access to the deposit made free for all (OA) immediately (no OA embargo) wherever possible (over 60% of journals already endorse immediate gratis OA self-archiving), and at the latest after a 6-month embargo on OA.

It is the above policy that H.R.3699 is attempting to make illegal…

medical copyeditor

Jan. 12, 2012, 11:24 p.m.

“produce essentially publication-ready copy”

In my experience, that is rarely the case. It may seem so to you, but everyone needs an editor. Researchers are extremely familiar with their material, and this often leads to logical leaps in text: the writer understands what he or she meant, but readers will not. This is exacerbated by the use of abbreviations or acronyms that make things convenient for the writer but confusing to the reader. A journal article is a formal presentation of work, not a lab notebook.

Also: “less than half of adult citizens in this country actually pay any taxes”: That statement is true only if the word “federal” is inserted before the word “taxes.” That may seem like hair-splitting, but not to the people paying the taxes.

It’s worth pointing out ProPublica’s counterpart in the research world, PLoS (the Public Library of Science).  From my days working bioinformatics (a sadly mind-numbing job working with some of the best people I’ve known), I’m not entirely fond of their business model charging researchers for publication (low cost and rational approach though it is), but that said, they’re peer-reviewed and professional, and allow access (and copying) for free.

So for those looking for nerdier reading on a budget or researchers looking for someplace non-predatory to publish, I’d definitely recommend them if they’re in your field.

Also, to second Bill’s comment, I haven’t had time yet for his latest book, but Lessig is a very good writer who talks a lot about the fight over Intellectual Property.  Most of his books are also available under a Creative Commons license (like ProPublica and PLoS) and have a free PDF download available.

He doesn’t sound like the Richard Stallmans and Cory Doctorows that “information wants to be free,” or suggesting that Intellectual Property is bad.  He’s rational enough to see it as a good thing, just not when it’s run rampant and controlled by the few.

What is this government trying to do make us all imbicils.  Most of us who are reading the information are doing so to keep knowledgeable and be able to ask their dr’s. questions about their treatment.  Ignorance is bliss but lack of knowledge makes my blood pressure rise during a medical crisis.  Next thing you know the government rules and regs will tell us when we can use the bathroom.

Christie Taylor

Jan. 13, 2012, 2:29 p.m.

As a professional scientist, this breaks my heart. Science is already inaccessible enough for most Americans, as though science needs another PR nightmare.

Barbara Hladun

Jan. 13, 2012, 2:34 p.m.

Just another example of greed running the country.

Can anyone help me with links for protesting?

This would shut down all the volunteer websites that use NIH data to help fellow patients stay up to date on promising research.

In my case, bone density has increased by using one of these volunteer websites, and I manage two other threatening health issues with information taken from other volunteer manned websites who provide this information free to all comers.

Stop that bill.  We need more transparency about what’s happening with OUR taxpayer dollars, not less.

Rather than restricting open access, I’d like to see it go further. Not only NIH research, but ALL taxpayer-funded research should be required to be posted to the open web.

If that destroys Elsevier and similar publishers, so be it. The pleading on their behalf is like those that were worried about printing putting scribes out of business.

Let Elsevier put a copy behind their paywall that they have added “editorial value” to.  Just keep the free copy We the People already paid for on a free web site.  Let the market decide which copy is better.

When I was network group supervisor at the Texas Railroad Commission (1999) the Texas General Land Office (GLO) and Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC, now TCEQ) wanted access to the database of oil well logs in order to 1) make sure they were collecting proper royalties, and 2) check to see if any reports of water well contamination might have been caused by salt water injection in the oil recovery process.  A recommendation that we FTP the data right on over to them was met with incredulous stares.  The government entrepreneurs decided spending another $300,000 of taxpayer money on a computerized system to bill other state agencies and the public was far better.  Knowledge hogs!

This story doesn’t even sound out of the ordinary.  There were elected Republican commissioners, all three, who forced the previous scam and some of them are running for higher office TODAY.

The country is still sliding—maybe a little faster.

Eric Rasmusen

Jan. 16, 2012, 2:48 p.m.

We need the contrary of the proposed bill. We need each state to pass a law saying any research done at its state universities needs to have its publications made available to the public for free.

  Going even one step further: have another state law saying that any private university that is exempt from state taxes needs to make its research publications available for free.

@medical copyeditor Jan 12 8:47:  It’s O/T, but since you raised the issue, the problem with Kevin Drum (at the link you provided) is that he and the sources he cited must not have taken the time to read the original report.  To cite just one example of how Drum misleads his readers, the household tax burden in the analysis includes payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. 

Payroll taxes represent most of the federal tax burden on people in the lowest two household income quintiles.  These taxes are not used to fund on-going government spending, but are returned to individuals in the form of Social Security pension benefits and Medicare health benefits.  If payroll taxes are removed from the accounting, then according to 2010 figures from the IRS, the lowest quintile actually pays a negative share of Federal taxes (i.e., they receive more cash payments FROM the Federal government than they pay TO the government).  The second lowest quintile has an average tax rate of 5.7% while earning about 10% of all income earned by all income groups.  For comparison, the top income quintile earns half of all income and pays 70% of all Federal income taxes. 

According to the report, in 2004 households in the bottom quintile received more than $15 of Federal spending for every dollar of Federal tax paid; those in the top quintile received $0.30 per Federal tax dollar paid.

Michael J. McFadden

Jan. 17, 2012, 5:52 a.m.

How about requiring free public access for any study where the researchers have made statements to the media about their findings or any research where the results could reasonably help laypeople make better medical choices?  This would include access to a reasonable level of detail for studies that are being “announced” but are not yet fully published.

This would address the problem of “Science By Press Release” where politically motivated research makes the 6 o’clock news with a predetermined slant designed to influence public opinion and/or political votes (Just take a look at the “studies” released to the news media in any area where a smoking ban vote is coming up and how rarely the actual details of them are open for checking and review by general members of the public.)

Meanwhile, articles that are truly of “doctors’ interest only” (E.G. a study titled something like “Oxidative transference of polynuclease activity in blood lipid martinis”) could stay behind the journals’ pay walls since anyone wanting to read them would probably be getting funding for such research expenses.

An alternative, though less desirable, solution would be to make public electronic access reasonably cheap.  It costs virtually nothing for such research to be made available on the internet (“virtually nothing” as seen in comparison to print and delivery costs for hardcopy distribution) so why does it cost $30 to read a single article?  I could *possibly* see a more reasonable fee of perhaps $20/year for members of the general public not professionally affiliated with medical research with that access covering all the regular medical journals covered by Elsevier etc, and a somewhat higher fee for doctors and regularly publishing medical researchers.  But anything beyond that is a disservice to the public health: GPs do NOT have the free time to stay completely up to date on all the research dealing with all the various medical conditions of all their various patients.  Educated and literate medical consumers should have the ability to help their GPs with their own research where possible—and it might cut down on the number of patients banging on their doctors about the latest remedies and concerns blasted into them by Oprah or a headline-hungry news media.

Michael J. McFadden
Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

Michael, the problem (at hand, not in the general sense) isn’t merely access to information.  It’s that research you and I paid money to pursue (in the form of government research grants or anything occurring at a National Lab on government property) should be under public ownership and therefore shouldn’t cost more than the burden of making it available.

I don’t mind if Bayer paid some MIT fellow and his grad students to check something out and then want to keep it private or only publish in expensive journals.  That’s fine.  They paid for it with the presumed intent of profit, after all.

But when the the money comes from the NSF or someplace similar, that’s a serious problem.  It should be available to doctors, other researchers, kids wondering what the field is like, authors trying to sound realistic, inventors, and so forth, because they all funded it.

If it was up to me, I’d say that any project with government funding (sigh…subject to national security ramifications) should be in the public domain and easily acquired by anybody interested.  If Elsevier or another publisher wants to charge for it, let them, just like anybody can sell a collection of Shakespeare’s plays or Census Bureau data.  If their peer review is indeed worth the money, people will pay for it.  The rest of us will read the “raw” papers on the cheap.

The problem is that there’s a disconnect between government-produced (which is almost always in the public domain) and government-funded.

(Along similar lines, I wouldn’t be unhappy if the government got into the business of buying important scientific and artistic works for release into the public domain.  Yesterday having been Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it’s worth pointing out that British music publisher EMI will sue the heck out of you for podcasting “I Have a Dream” without a license, which I’m not sure is how King would have wanted it.  It also takes some serious legal wrangling to make any sense, by redefining the word “publish” several times.)

Michael J. McFadden

Jan. 17, 2012, 11:46 a.m.

John, I agree.  The main thrust of the article was indeed at the taxpayer funded studies, and of course I fully agree with it.  I was extending it to some extent out of some recent frustrations with the use of “access restricted” studies for the purposes of pushing particular types of legislation.  Reporters too often seem to take their news stories almost entirely from three sources:  1) A press release, often by an advocacy group connected with the research or which feels it can make use of its results; 2) A couple of quotes from the researchers themselves, usually not adding anything of scientific substance but mainly serving to simply express their opinion of the “larger meaning” of their research; and 3) a quick glance at the Abstract—as long as it doesn’t contain too many phrases like: “breakdown of alveolar epithelialmesenchymal cross-talk, reflecting lipofibroblast-to-myofibroblast transdifferentiation.”

Research in contentious public health areas that is used in political ways should not be hidden from public access behind a veil of money, even if that veil might not seem overly substantial to most people, and the current practice of asking double digit figures for access to single articles is not exactly a veil I’d characterize as diaphanous: if science were a strip club I’d demand my money back! 

  - MJM

That’s a good point, Michael, but I’m having trouble finding a model to make it happen.  With government funding, there’s a good argument to tell the journals they’re out of luck.  But “merely important”?  I don’t know.

(I thought about libel, but I doubt anybody has standing to sue over lying about science…)

One approach that (unfortunately) only possibly solves your specific problem would be to insist that bills only be up for vote if supporting research is attached.  That would make legislation-inspiring science available by definition…assuming we can trust legislators to seek the information out and not just claim it’s “the right thing to do.”

Something I would definitely suggest, though, is vocally support the groups that do encourage “Open Access.”  Scientists want an audience.  Nature is an important journal because every school and lab has a subscription.  If people are using PLoS or one of the archives linked at ROAR (The Registry of Open Access Repositories -, which may not work with Internet Explorer), that’s where they’ll want to publish.

And let’s be honest.  Deep down, we all know that, if the science isn’t meant to be seen, it isn’t science.

Eric Neblung, Ph.D.

Jan. 17, 2012, 10:56 p.m.

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to making informed decisions regarding healthcare.  Thank you for raising awareness about this bill.

Eric Neblung, Ph.D.

Bonnie Lockamy

Jan. 18, 2012, 11:19 p.m.

Please defeat “the Research Works Act” when it comes to a vote.  We the consumers need all the free information out there that other wonderful souls can read and pass on to us.

Thank you….
Ms. Bonnie Lockamy

ron deradourian

Feb. 8, 2012, 4:19 p.m.

Write your congressman/woman to vote no if you believe that we should not pass this bill.

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