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Who Owns Government-Funded Research Papers?

The Research Works Act would prevent publicly funded research from automatically being available to the public for free. Private publishers back the bill, while open-access partisans are appalled.

Who owns publicly funded research — and the knowledge that comes from it? Is it the researchers themselves? The taxpayers who make their work possible? The community of academics who volunteer to peer review it? Or the academic journals that package and distribute all of this under respected titles?

Maybe this sounds like inside baseball within the already too-insular world of academia. After all, is the public really clamoring to access the contents of the Journal of Diagnostic Medical Sonography? But there is a big question at play here as the U.S. Congress considers a bill called the Research Works Act.

The bill would essentially outlaw a National Institutes of Health policy that makes every piece of published research funded by NIH grants freely available to the public. Some publishers of academic journals aren’t fond of this idea, arguing it steps on their private-sector business model. (And Miller-McCune, we should note, is the beneficiary of some of that money since academic powerhouse SAGE Publications is our primary donor.)

Supporters of NIH counter that hiding federally funded research behind private pay walls forces the public to pay twice for the same good: on the front end when they fund research with tax dollars, and again on the back end when academic journals charge to access the results.

The NIH funds about half of all federally funded research, or roughly $30 billion worth of it each year, and so its efforts on this front have long been a source of optimism, or controversy. Previous NIH director Harold Varmus first proposed creating such a public database in the late 1990s, and journal publishers not surprisingly threatened to sue for copyright violation.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

The NIH ultimately took the idea to Congress for approval, and that battle lasted another four years. Finally, in 2008, the NIH got legislation backing something resembling Varmus’ original idea: a federal law that says if you take funding from the NIH as a researcher, you must agree to make any articles that come out of it freely available to a public database within a year of its publication.

Some publishers never stopped fighting the policy — a 2009 precursor to the Research Works Act never made it out of committee — and it has awkwardly divided the membership of the Association of American Publishers.

Now the NIH faces the latest in a series of bills that would roll back public access even as many of its champions hoped the idea would spread beyond the NIH.

Backers of the idea originally suspected such a database would serve a wide group of academic libraries, entrepreneurial businesses and members of the public personally invested in findings on, say, breast cancer. As it turns out, the NIH’s database has been drawing half-a-million unique visitors a day – and only a quarter of those from dot-edu domains.

“Which is astounding,” said Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which publicly opposes the bill. “That does bear out that this isn’t an ivory tower issue. This is information that is of general interest in a much wider population than is ever going to subscribe to a scholarly journal.”

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.

“Even if people don’t understand it themselves, they know how to ask for help in interpreting it. They know, ‘Hey this might matter; I’m going to take it to somebody who can help me with it,’” Joseph said. “That’s what our publicly funded research is supposed to be used for: benefitting the public.”

Beyond these individuals, there is also more macro-level value that comes from simply opening up the process of knowledge creation to as many people as possible. 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.

In this way, academic research is not all that unique from the open-access movement in general. The same principle underlies why the White House should publish visitor records, or why cities should release traffic data, or why weather satellite information should go online. Not only does this information belong to the public; it becomes more valuable when the public has access to it, and, oftentimes, the public can actually add value to it.

“People are just beginning to get comfortable with the idea that open access actually encourages commercial development — it’s not antithetical to making money,” Joseph said. “It’s a really powerful concept, but it’s so difficult to let go of the idea that ‘unless I control my content on the Internet, I’m not going to be able to make money on it.’ Especially with academic research, the opposite is true. 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.”

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