A small bill in the US, a giant impact for research worldwide



Over the Christmas period, a short Bill was introduced into the US House of Representatives. The Research Works Act aims to make it illegal to require researchers to make their work publicly available. If passed, Australian researchers and the public will lose access to a considerable amount of US research.

This Bill is a direct counter to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy, which states that the results of publicly-funded research must be made open access in the PubMed Central repository within a year of publication. The Bill also seeks to prohibit federal agencies from including such conditions in their grants in the future.

Let’s break this down. Publicly funded research being undertaken by researchers who are often themselves (in Australia almost exclusively) also publicly funded, is written up and submitted to a publisher. The publisher sends it back out to the academic community to peer review the work, for no charge. Many of the editors of journals are also academics who again are doing the work gratis. The publisher then adds the journal design to the article and publishes it, charging disproportionally large subscription fees for access to the work. These fees are paid by university libraries, again, with public funding.

Open access funding rules such as those of the NIH, Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and others simply allow the taxpayer – who has paid for the research and the majority of the publishing process – to have access to the findings of that research.

Publishers claim that open access is hurting their profit margin

So it’s not surprising that the two Congress-people putting the Bill forward, Democrat Carolyn Maloney and Republican Darrell Issa, are recipients of substantial donations from the largest scholarly publishing company, Elsevier.

This Bill has generated an explosion of angry rebuttal across the blogosphere. While it has been supported by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which represents scholarly and professional publications, several members of the AAP have distanced themselves from the Bill.

Publishers of the two most prestigious journals, Nature and Science (a member of AAP) both issued press releases last week saying they did not support the Research Works Act. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an article urging scientists to oppose the Bill.

Implications for Australia

The Research Works Act is a US bill, so it may appear easy to dismiss it as not affecting Australian research. But it’s part of a worrying international trend.

December 2011 also saw the release of the “Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth” in the United Kingdom, with its focus on commercialisation over openness. It’s quite possible that if the Research Works Act is passed, then the publishing lobby will try to introduce something along similar lines in Australia.

There are two funding bodies in Australia, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Until last year, both held an almost identical position on open access – the grant conditions encouraged researchers to consider the benefits of depositing their data and any publications in a repository. This position has been considered by many in the open access community to be relatively weak.

But both funding bodies are firming their position towards open access. The ARC Discovery Projects Funding Rules for funding commencing in 2012 state that researchers may use up to 2% of their grant for publication and that the ARC strongly encourages open access publishing. While this is not a mandate, the rules also state that if researchers don’t make their work open access, they must justify this decision in the grant’s final report.

The NHMRC has indicated it is strengthening its open access position even further. While the official announcement is yet to be made, the organisation has made public statements since at least October 2010 indicating its new funding policy will require researchers to make a version of their publications available in an institutional repository.

This is exactly the sort of mandate the Research Works Act is intending to roll back. It would be cruel irony if the hard-won open access mandates in Australia were immediately countered by a bill similar to the Research Works Act.

But the real reason why Australians should care about the Research Works Act is because research is a global endeavour. Australian researchers currently rely on articles being available through PubMed Central or other open access means so they can continue their own research. If this source of research articles is cut off, then the quality of research that people can undertake here will be diminished.

The taxpayer cannot continue to pay more and more in university library subscriptions to commercial publishers to access research. The ramifications of the Research Works Act are worldwide and it must not be allowed to pass.