Should taxpayers pay for publicly funded research twice? That’s one of the questions raised by the proposed Research Works Act, H.R. 3699, a bill introduced by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and co-sponsored by Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY). It raises the question, who owns government-funded research? In its current form the bill would reverse the National Institute of Health’s policy that allows taxpayer-funded research to be freely accessible online.
This is not just an esoteric issue addressing the concerns of scientists. If signed into law the Research Works Act would reverse NIH policy, making every published research funded by NIH grants freely available to the public. That would eliminate free access to approximately $30 billion worth of research each year. A half-a-million unique visitors a day may not have access to vital information. Emily Badger explains why this is important:
“Data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project helps explains why the public might want to have access to all this. Pew recently found that 80 percent of Internet users have looked online for health information. And an older Pew study, from 2002, found that 37 percent of these people trolling online for medical information later took it to their doctor or health care professional — in other words, to someone who could help them decipher it.”
In addition to the public access issue Badger makes the point that there are larger, macro-level issues associated with free access:
“Open access accelerates the pace of discovery. It can prompt interdisciplinary research that never would have taken place before. It can even speed the crucial course of converting findings into real-life applications….The only way it gains value, the only way it shows any kind of return — socially and economically — is for more people to get access to it, to read it, to build on it.”
Not surprisingly the bill is supported by those who financially benefit from subscription-based scientific journals or private pay walls that force interested citizens to pay twice for the same good.
Fortunately, more scientists are opposing the bill. On January 18, 2012, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science said,
“American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, today reaffirmed its support for the current public access policy of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).”