Is Access to Government-Funded Research a Right?

When the government funds academic research but publishers pay for editing and peer review, who gets to call the shots?


The White House petition seemed simple: "We petition the Obama administration to require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research." The petition very quickly reached the 25,000 threshold in early June required for the administration to have a staffer formally respond. (It has not yet done so.) The issues behind the efforts, though, are more complex than a simple sentence.

The petition was introduced by access2research.org, the work of several proponents of the open access movement. The movement, tracing its roots back to the Internet expansion of the 1990s, strives to open access to all peer-reviewed scholarly research and journals online.

Access2research aims to extend a model the National Institutes of Health (NIH) instituted in 2009. The NIH requires studies they've funded to become publicly available online within a year of publication.

Legislation has been introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to extend the model to 11 other federal agencies. Free access is supported by the Association of Research Libraries, whose members have seen their subscription expenses soar over the past decade. It is opposed by the Association of American Publishers, whose members publish the journals.

Here's the central conflict: While government funding pays for the research, it does not cover the cost of peer review, editing and publication, costs borne by private publishers and then recouped (along with a tidy profit) through subscriptions to their journals. As such, Association of American Publishers' members bristle at the government mandating their business models. The movement's supporters, though, say they want the systems to accommodate the publishers' needs and that NIH's method has succeeded in doing so.

"The policies we're advocating for are to come up with a balance of the interests of the publishers in recouping the costs and the public being served," explained Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition within the Association of Research Libraries. "We're trying to find that sweet spot."

Graph courtesy of a 2010 report on Open Access efforts by Heather Joseph for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition.

By giving publishers a year to use their copyright monopoly to sell access to journals and articles, Joseph and other open access proponents believe they may have found that spot. Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers, disagreed and questioned whether such a "sweet spot" could ever be found, given the diversity of publishing systems and varying access demands depending on the field of research.

"The main issue about it is that there is such great diversity in this field," Adler said. "You have journals, some of which are for-profit, some non-profit. There are differences in the way they publish. … One size for an embargo doesn't work. … 'One year should be enough time.' How does the government know that? How does the government decide that a 12-month embargo works in the same way for different areas and different kinds of publishers?"

Adler also pointed out that if the government wanted to make the research public, it could do so right now without forcing publishers to surrender their works. As part of the NIH's policy, researchers are required to submit to the agency a final summary of their findings. There's no reason why this summary couldn't serve the public's needs, Adler argued.

But such a release would lack the peer-review input and editing the publishers provide, which in the academic world is such a vital component of the "publish or perish" environment. The more complex question lodged inside this fight, as these publishing models face the same digital delivery adaptations seen in the rest of the media world, is where exactly peer review might fit in the future of academic research publishing.

"In the mainstream, peer review is still considered one of your professional duties," said Michael Carroll, professor of law and director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at American University's Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. Carroll is one of the proponents of the open access petition, as well as one of the founding board members of Creative Commons, a non-profit devoted to expanding the nature of copyright to allow for more control in the sharing of creative works.

Academics aren't paid for peer review, but there are still significant costs on the publishers' end in order to manage the process on behalf of the researcher. For the heavyweights of scientific journals, like those of Nature Publishing Group, the demand for an in-depth peer review process – not just to validate the science, but the value of the research – is probably not going to decline anytime soon. But just as Adler challenged a one-size-fits-all publishing model, Carroll said some in the field wonder the same about the peer review process and are beginning to look at alternative financing methods.

"We're seeing some authors do this," Carroll said. PLoS One is an example of such an alternative system, which streamlines the peer review process but then keeps the process open for public comment or annotation after publishing: "The philosophy is that it's more important to get the report out. Let the market decide how good the study is." (Reason's Ron Bailey wrote about alternative models of scientific publishing back in 2007, including PLoS One, which published its 10,000th article in 2010.)

The market is also prompting academic publishers to make changes on their own, said Susan King, senior vice president of the Journals Publishing Group for the American Chemical Society's Publications Division.

"From our perspective we do support universal access to the results but publishing needs to be sustainable," King said. "Collaborations have already happened between publishers and their communities and it's the best way forward." The American Chemical Society does allow its authors to choose to have their works openly accessible immediately after publication. But so far, though the American Chemical Society publishes about 35,000 studies per year in its 41 journals, authors have only asked for open access for less than 2,000 papers, King said.

The breadth of ideas and potential solutions to the problem of access to academic research (to the extent that there is a problem at all) might make one ask why the government should get involved in this issue. The open access proponents have solutions. The publishers have solutions. The researchers have solutions. Can't they work it out? Does anybody really believe the government is the best choice to shape the future of academic culture?