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Scientists are urged to oppose new US legislation that will put studies behind a pay wall

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e452 (Published 17 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e452
  1. Keith Epstein
  1. 1Washington, DC

The US government could end guarantees of free access to publicly funded medical research under legislation introduced in Congress on 16 December that has backing from the publishing industry.

The Research Works Act, although only 370 words in length, is the latest attempt by the Association of American Publishers, which represents scholarly and professional publications, to undo a 2008 policy adopted by the National Institutes of Health. That policy made it mandatory for articles arising from government financed research to be made free to view on the electronic archives of the National Library of Medicine’s website PubMed Central (BMJ 2007;335:906, doi:10.1136/bmj.39384.638241.DB). A similar policy is being adopted in the United Kingdom, the coalition government noted in a December 2011 report on innovation (http://bit.ly/wiKOaK).

In the US the threat of a reinstated pay wall has triggered a backlash from researchers, doctors, patients, peer reviewers, librarians, teachers, and other advocates of open access, who argue that the intellectual work of research is done in laboratories and clinics and by peer reviewers—not by publishers—and that taxpayers would, in effect, be paying twice.

Publishers say that they add value and are entitled to fair compensation and to be safeguarded from the risks of digital theft.

Michael Eisen, an associate professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and who is on the board of directors of the open access Public Library of Science (PLoS), has urged Congress to expand rather than restrict free access. He is calling on scientists and research institutions to publish only in open access journals.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper on 16 January (http://bit.ly/xUjj77), Mike Taylor, a research associate at the University of Bristol, urged scientists around the world to put pressure on their professional societies to withdraw from the Association of American Publishers and oppose the US legislation.

Alan Garber, provost of Harvard University, has warned in a letter to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy that a looming “access crisis” threatens “the return on the public’s enormous investment” in research (http://hvrd.me/zGzHdb).

Underlying the publishing industry’s latest lobbying effort are concerns that the White House office may significantly expand free access, including research financed by other government agencies.

Allan Adler, vice president for government and legal affairs at the Association of American Publishers, told the BMJ, “It’s a defensive posture. This isn’t an attack on open access—our community welcomes that. This is a question about whether the government should compete with privately funded enterprise.”

Publishers have contributed to the political campaigns of Darrell Issa and Carolyn Maloney, sponsors of the Research Works Act in the House of Representatives. Since 2009 Reed Elsevier executives have contributed $55 800 (£36 300; €43 600) to members of Congress, including 27 contributions totalling $16 000 to Ms Maloney, shows a BMJ analysis of US election data maintained by the independent Center for Responsive Politics.

Over the past three years Elsevier and the Association of American Publishers have spent more than $6.3m on lobbying in Washington, DC, some but not all of it involving the quest for an end to free access.

Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society and spokesman for a coalition of not for profit journals, refuted as “misguided” accusations that the publishing industry is, in effect, seeking to “double bill” taxpayers. Journals enable further discovery, certify quality and reliability, preserve the scholarly record, and engage in independent analysis, he said. Articles are “separate creative acts” from the research itself, he said.

His society, which publishes 14 journals, spends an average $2500 producing each article. If immediately shared free of charge, Mr Frank told the BMJ, those costs would have to be shouldered by the government, authors, or their institutions.

In a letter to the Office of Science and Technology Policy on 12 January Mr Frank and Mr Adler warn of “damage” to publishers from the government’s policy. Sales and usage have fallen under the free access mandate, they say, and Chinese pirate firms are digitally mining and reselling full text articles from National Institutes of Health websites, contributing to $80m in losses to US publishers and scientific societies.

“Such unnecessary and harmful mandates jeopardise the sustainability of the US professional and scholarly publishing enterprise,” they say in the letter.

To many advocates of public access such arguments ring hollow. Academic publishers, after all, seem to be doing well, they say, partly because content digitisation has opened new markets. Last May the Economist reported that Elsevier cruised through the recession, earning £724m on revenues of £2bn—an operating profit margin of 36% (www.economist.com/node/18744177). Some publishers have seen profit margins of 30%.

However, if the government expands free access, journals of not for profit societies may not survive, warned Mr Adler.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e452

Footnotes

  • All research published in the BMJ is free to access.