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March 8, 2012

Bill opposing open access is dropped

Proposed federal legislation that would have ended policies requiring free public access to federally funded research is dead.

Sponsors of the Research Works Act (HR 3699) and scholarly publisher Elsevier, a major supporter of the measure, withdrew their backing for the controversial bill last week after raising the ire of open-access advocates in the academic community.

The bill would have dismantled the National Institutes of Health’s public-access policy and prohibited other federal agencies from enacting similar policies. In 2008, NIH began requiring researchers to submit their peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that result from NIH funding to the PubMed Central digital archive upon acceptance for publication. The NIH policy requires that those papers be available to the public within 12 months of publication.

Researchers singled out Elsevier for a boycott that sprang from a Jan. 21 blog post by Cambridge University mathematics professor Tim Gowers (

Citing the publisher’s support for the Research Works Act, Gowers criticized Elsevier’s pricing and other business practices and publicly announced his refusal to publish in, referee papers for or join the editorial board of any Elsevier publication.

His post gained momentum in the math community, sparking the creation of an online petition at on which like-minded researchers signed on to boycott Elsevier as well. More than 7,700 individuals have added their names to the petition.

In a Feb. 27 release, Research Works Act sponsors Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) stated: “The introduction of HR 3699 has spurred a robust, expansive debate on the topics of scientific and scholarly publishing, intellectual property protection and public access to federally funded research. Since its introduction, we have heard from numerous stakeholders and interested parties on both sides of this important issue.

“As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open-access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future. The transition must be collaborative, and must respect copyright law and the principles of open access. The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid. This conversation needs to continue and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate. As such, we want Americans concerned about access to research and other participants in this debate to know we will not be taking legislative action on HR 3699, the Research Works Act. We do intend to remain involved in efforts to examine and study the protection of intellectual property rights and open access to publicly funded research.”

The legislators’ announcement followed Elsevier’s withdrawal of its support for the bill. The publisher stated Feb. 27 online that its support “has caused some in the community to question” its commitment to serving the research community and ensuring access to research publications and data.

Elsevier stressed its opposition to government-mandated open access, but offered a nod to the researchers who took action.

“We have heard expressions of support from publishers and scholarly societies for the principle behind the legislation. However, we have also heard from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers who were concerned that the act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier’s long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature,” the company stated.

“That was certainly not our intention in supporting it. This perception runs counter to our commitment to making published research widely accessible, coming at a time when we continue to expand our access options for authors and develop advanced technologies to enable the sharing and distribution of research results.” (The publisher’s entire statement can be found at

Charles B. Lowry, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, was skeptical of Elsevier’s statement. “The leopard has not changed its spots nor is it likely to do so before its high-profit business model is on the verge of collapse. I’ll know that’s happened when they take a real haircut,” he commented.

University Library System director Rush Miller told the University Times: “I am delighted to see that Elsevier has succumbed to pressure from faculty all around the world who signed the petition protesting Elsevier’s predatory pricing practices and support for the Research Works Act. They are discovering what academic research librarians all around the world have long understood, that Elsevier’s pricing policies maximize corporate profits at the expense of the efficient distribution of new knowledge.

“The entire open-access movement, which this bill attempted to undermine, is in direct response to the practices of this company and several others. Four large scientific commercial companies control two-thirds of the world’s scientific research output and almost half of all scholarly articles produced by faculty in universities. As a growing number of libraries are forced to cancel exorbitantly priced journals because of price increases and decreasing budgets, [the companies’] response is to attempt at all costs to preserve their revenues and profits, a profit-to-revenue ratio that approaches one-third,” Miller said.

“At Pitt, I plan to continue to promote and support true open-access publishing by establishing a program to assist our faculty in paying author fees to open-access journals of high reputation as an alternative to placement in journals that continue to inhibit the free flow of knowledge. Pitt also strongly supports the extension of the current public access mandate for NIH-funded research to research resulting from grants from other federal agencies in the recent bill introduced by our own Rep. Mike Doyle.” (See Feb. 23 University Times.)

Doyle’s bill, the Federal Research Public Access Act (HR 4004), would require federal agencies with an extramural research budget of $100 million or more to make the federally funded scientific research available online no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The legislation also would require materials to be preserved in a digital repository that allows free public access. A Senate version, S.2096, was introduced Feb. 9 by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

Scholarly publishing groups are opposing the bill. Tom Allen, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, in a March 5 statement labeled the bill “little more than an attempt at intellectual eminent domain, but without fair compensation to authors and publishers.”

Doyle’s bill has been referred to the House committee on oversight and government reform; Cornyn’s bill is before the Senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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