Witnesses Highlight Complexity and Promise of Increased Public Access to Research

Mar 29, 2012
Witnesses Highlight Complexity and Promise of Increased Public Access to Research

Washington D.C. - The Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight today held an oversight hearing to examine various models for disseminating federally funded research and their corresponding effects on the scientific process.  With the federal government funding 31 percent of research conducted in the country, access to the outcomes of the research is of significant interest to scholarly journals, researchers, and taxpayers who want access to what they have already paid for.

“Society’s expectations of transparency are clearly increasing,” noted Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA). “Couple this trend with the fact that taxpayers rightfully expect access to research they have funded, and you quickly realize that we all must work together to ensure that the various interests involved are treated fairly, and that ultimately science and research are not harmed.”

Two representatives of scientific societies testified today about the role of societies in the science publishing world. New publishing business models, referred to as open access, have emerged in which researchers pay for publication costs in advance in order to fund research journals that are then accessible to all for free. Some advocates have pushed for this to be the favored approach to publishing the results of federally funded research. However, Dr. H. Frederick Dylla, the Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics, testified in response to two possible approaches to open access that “neither of these one-size-fits-all approaches is an appropriate solution for the diverse array of journals published across all the disciplines represented by federally funded research efforts.”

One of the concerns with new business models is the impact to long-standing scientific societies.   Dr. Crispin Taylor, the Executive Director of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), noted the importance of journal revenues to the budgets of small scientific societies like his. “In ASPB’s case, the journals generate approximately 80% of the Society’s $6 million in annual revenue,” Dr. Crispin testified. “A little more than half of the total income derives from 2,000 institutional subscriptions, which we work very hard to sell to universities and corporations around the world, and another 20% from charges levied on hundreds of authors. By contrast, ASPB devotes about half of its operating budget to supporting the journals publishing operation, with the remainder devoted to advancing the broader scholarly missions of the society.”

Reduced budgets have forced university libraries to review spending on scholarly journal subscriptions. Mr. Stuart Shieber, Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication at Harvard University, testified that expenditures in Association of Research Libraries “have increased by a factor of almost 5.”

Mr. Scott Plutchak, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, agreed with pricing concerns but urged the Committee to take a broad look into the issue, noting how the prior debates over the issue had been misguided. “Unfortunately, the debates over access to the peer-reviewed journal literature that have taken place over the last decade or so have been unnecessarily contentious and have diverted energy and attention from what could have been, and should have been, a careful examination of facts and opportunities,” Plutchak said.

The hearing also heard from Mr. Elliot Maxwell of the Center for Economic Development concerning his recent study into the issue, which highlighted the benefits to the public of greater open access to National Institute of Health open access policies that have been in effect since 2008.

Noting the longstanding work on this issue by the Committee, Chairman Broun closed the hearing by noting that “Any effort to fundamentally change the way in which federal research is reviewed, vetted, transmitted, and communicated should benefit from the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s input.  We have been involved in investigating issues surrounding public access for a number of years, and are uniquely qualified to evaluate the impacts on research and federal agencies.”

The Committee expects to receive a report in the coming weeks on this issue from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as directed in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.

The following witnesses testified today before the Subcommittee:

Dr. H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director and CEO, American Institute of Physics

Mr. Elliot Maxwell, Project Director for the Digital Connections Council, Committee on Economic Development

Dr. Crispin Taylor, Executive Director, American Society of Plant Biologists

Mr. Stuart Shieber, Director, Office for Scholarly Communications, Harvard University

Mr. Scott Plutchak, Director, Lister Hill Library at University of Alabama at Birmingham