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Summary: Hearing on Public Access to Federally Funded Research

Published Aug 14, 2010

On Thursday, July 29, the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform held the first-ever hearing on the issue of public access to federally funded research.  The Subcommittee invited ten witnesses, representing a broad cross-section of the stakeholder communities affected by this issue, to testify on the implications of opening access to the results of publicly funded research.

A summary of the hearing, which was segmented into three panels, is provided for you below. The full testimony of all ten witnesses is available at


Panel I

Allan Adler, Vice President for Government Relations for the Association of American Publishers (AAP) opened the first panel. Mr. Adler voiced many of the objections raised by the AAP since the issue of public access was first addressed by Congress in 2003, including:

·       Public access policies are unnecessary as there is no access “crisis;

·       Public access policies will cause large-scale subscription cancellations, leading publishers to go out of business and significant job losses;

·       Concern over some type of conflict with U.S copyright law; and

·       Government expropriation of private property.

NOTE: The Chairman of the Committee directly asked the panel if they could provide data on how publishers have been negatively impacted by current public access policies. No data was provided.

Adler raised two additional concerns:

·       First, that opening access to U.S. publicly funded research would provide an advantage to other countries (particularly China), which would lead to loss of the U.S.’s competitive standing in STEM education and research.  

·       Second, opening access to publicly funded research would pave the way for increased piracy of these articles.

The second witness, Dr. Steven Breckler, Executive Director for Science at the American Psychological Association, voiced similar concerns and added another: policies directing federal agencies to require that the public have access to articles reporting on federally funded research would be in direct conflict with the Obama Administration’s Open Government Directive. A December 2009 memo from President Obama 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."

Dr. Breckler stated that, in his view, preserving the scientific publishing industry constitutes a compelling interest.

NOTE: In public presentations, Diane DiEuliis of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has specified that the Obama Administration’s activities around expanded policies for access to federally funded research are part of the Open Government Directive.

Also worth noting: Breckler referred to the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable as the “OSTP” Roundtable, when – in fact – the Roundtable was not convened by the White House, but by one member of congress to provide him with advice.

The final witness on the first panel (Ralph Oman, law professor at George Washington University) restated concerns that public access policies such as that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) present an inherent conflict with copyright. The argument was essentially the same as he presented when testifying in support of the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (H.R. 801) in September 2008. 

NOTE: H.R. 801 has not progressed beyond the House Judiciary Committee since that time.

During the question period for the first panel, one Committee member (Carolyn Maloney, D-NY) was particularly exercised by the potential for conflict with current IP owner protections and spoke at length about the need for stronger protection for content creators.  She also noted her concern that the investment publishers make in the peer review process was unfairly threatened by public access. 

NOTE: Ms. Maloney’s comments in several places referred to peer reviewers being paid for their work -- a misconception that several panelists repeatedly corrected.

Panel II

The second panel’s contrasting views were evident from the first speaker. All six panelists noted that the current lack of access to federally funded research negatively impacts them and their constituencies and emphasized the opportunities that are inherent in opening up access.

Ms. Catherine Nancarrow, Managing Editor of the PLoS community journals, provided a markedly different viewpoint from the previous publishers, describing an open-access model for providing high-quality peer-reviewed journal articles that would not be affected by proposed public access policies.

She described the growing success of the Open Access publishing marketplace, citing PLoS’s financial break-even status (and providing additional data on PLoS’ financials in writing to the Committee), the growing number of open-access publishers successfully competing in the marketplace, the achievement of quality benchmarks (such as impact factors), and the increasing utility of articles published in open-access venues.

Nancarrow also noted PLoS’ use of Creative Commons licenses, which ensures that any requirement for public access to the results of publicly funded research would not conflict with copyrights held by the publisher or author of articles in these journals.

Dr. Richard Roberts, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and the second panelist, reminded the room that access to information underpins the ability of science to advance, and that enhancing access is the key to accelerating progress. As the Chief Scientist at a U.S.-based biotech company, he emphasized the need for commercial enterprises – particularly small companies – to gain access to the results of federally funded research to be competitive and to create products, services and – most crucially – jobs.

Dr. Roberts also argued that students, even those at the high-school level, need access – noting that the best and the brightest high-school student doesn’t just want access to the literature; they actually require it to be competitive.

Elliot Maxwell, Digital Connections Council Project Director, next spoke on behalf of the Committee on Economic Development (CED). The CED is a non-profit, non-partisan business-led public policy organization dedicated to policy research on major economic and social issues, comprised of senior corporate executives and university leaders. Maxwell underscored the need for greater openness to spur innovation and build economic growth.  He specifically pointed to the opportunities that opening access to publicly funded research provides to facilitate job growth and generate significant new sources of economic activity.

Maxwell also addressed the issue of copyright, noting specifically that, in CED’s view and that of other expert panels that have considered this issue, policies that would require public access to federally funded research results constructed to mirror the NIH public access policy are consistent with copyright law.

Sharon Terry, CEO of Genetic Alliance, drove home the serious challenges created by the lack of access by recounting her personal experience when she and her husband learned her two children were diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE). “We didn’t know a gene from a hubcap,” she said, noting that neither she nor her husband had any scientific background. Lacking  affiliation with a subscribing institution or the finances to pay for subscriptions, they “borrowed, hacked, and stole” access to more than 400 articles relating to the disease. As a result, the Terrys successfully identified a gene associated with PXE, published the first-ever paper relating to genetics by a non-PhD in Nature, patented a gene, and founded an international advocacy organization to conduct research on similar genetic disorders.

Terry noted in her testimony that she and her husband are just “ordinary citizens” for whom access makes an enormous difference.

NOTE: The Chairman subsequently commented (good-naturedly) that he’d never before actually had a witness admit to committing a crime in a hearing before.

He also asked Ms. Terry if she thought that patients and the public would be better served by making data more widely available, rather than articles. She responded that better access to both was urgently needed.

Dr. Sophia Colamarino, Vice President for Research at Autism Speaks, recounted similar difficulties with access. As a Stanford-trained, PhD neuroscientist, Dr. Colamarino left the well-funded Salk Research Institute to direct Autism Speaks’ $20million+ annual research investment. “On a Friday at Salk, I had good access. When I started my job at Autism Speaks on Monday morning, I had none.”

Besides restricting her ability to do her job as a researcher, she emphasized the problems that lack of access causes for millions affected by complex disorders such as Autism, which require families to become educated on interventions, therapies, and treatments – and who simply do not have access to the latest research.

NOTE: Dr. Colamarino was asked if journal articles were the appropriate form of information for families to access, or if they might not be better served by summaries or other sources.  She responded that she spends about 90% of her time traveling and meeting with families, and that they depend on journal articles. In cases when they are unsure of the content, they take it to their health care provider for assistance.

The view from higher education was articulated by Dr. David Shulenberger, Vice President of Academic Affairs for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). Dr. Shulenberger noted that APLU supports federal legislation ensuring public access in order to increase the pace of scholarly inquiry .

He indicated that APLU’s endorsement of policies requiring public access is based on polling of the Association’s board and the provosts and research officers at its member universities, noting that they feel broadening access to the results of research they produce is consistent with their core mission.

He described the current situation, where the high cost of journals often shuts member campuses out from the information they want and need to provide to their researchers, faculty, and students. He also lauded the NIH’s approach, which he indicated had been implemented successfully across APLU institutions.

NOTE: Dr. Shulenberger was asked to explain the notion that individuals and institutions are “double taxed” on research. He explained that this occurs when taxpayer dollars fund basic research (and also often the salaries of those conducting the peer review), and then taxpayer dollars are used by public institutions to buy back access to the results of this research.

Panel III

The final panelist was Dr. David Lipman, Director of the National Center for Biotechnology and Informatics (NCBI) at the NIH. Dr. Lipman, who directs the PubMed Central (PMC) database, provided data on the impact and results of the NIH public access policy to date.  He noted that PMC now contains just under 2 million articles, and that more than 420,000 unique users access PMC each day

He also noted that use of PMC has more than doubled in the two years since the mandatory NIH policy went into effect, demonstrating the deep demand for access to this information. He described the connections between PubMed Central and other heavily used databases at NIH, such as GenBank. He noted that additional iterations of PMC have now been established by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and in the UK (by the Wellcome Trust and other UK funders.)

NOTE: In response to a question from the Chair, Dr. Lipman indicated that NIH is in a position to be able to provide significant assistance to other federal agencies that may implement public access policies. He noted that NIH would be able to take manuscripts from authors or publishers in other disciplines and convert them to a standardized, searchable format, and then archive them at the National Library of Medicine. 

* * * *

Next steps: Congress will be in recess until September 9, so any further action on this issue or related legislation will happen after that point. Please stand by for further details as they happen from SPARC and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.

If you have any questions in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact us. 


1 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Sandy Thatcher
Aug 18, 2010 1:28pm [ 1 ]

Open access is a laudable goal, for all the reasons articulated by the witnesses at this hearing. What remains unknown, however, is whether a shift to a PLoS-type business model will actually solve the "serials crisis" as an economic problem for universities, which may end up simply having to reallocate funds from library budgets to paying author publication fees.---Sandy Thatcher (former president, Association of American University Presses, 2007/8)

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