Push to block free access to academic research falters in the US

Californian Republican Darrell Issa has dropped his support for a bill that would restrict free access to taxpayer-funded research. AAP/Francis Specker

A controversial US bill that was designed to block access to vast amounts of academic research appears to have collapsed after its co-sponsors renounced their support for it.

The Research Works Act, introduced by Republican Darrell Issa and Democrat Carolyn Maloney in the US House of Representatives on December 16, contained provisions that would have made it illegal to mandate open access to taxpayer-funded work. In other words, it would have stopped funding bodies from forcing researchers to publish their work in databases that are accessible for free.

The bill initially had the backing of academic journal publisher Elsevier, which has recently become the target of a boycott by more than 7,500 academics. They say the publishing giant is exploiting researchers and taxpayers by charging exorbitant sums for subscriptions and one-off access to papers. They have also accused Elsevier and other giants in the publishing industry of supporting the bill to protect their enormous profit-making power.

In 2010, Elsevier made a profit of £724m on revenues of £2bn, for an operating profit margin of 36%.

Hours after Elsevier indicated it would drop support for the bill, the two co-sponsors, Darrell Issa, a Republican of California, and Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat of New York, announced in a statement that they would not push for action after all because “the American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid.

"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.

"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 … the Research Works Act.”

In a statement released earlier, Elsevier said that it was devoted to “serving the global research community and ensuring the best possible access to research publications and data” but conceded that its support for the Research Works Act had caused many to question that commitment.

“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.

"While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself.”

Alex Holcombe, an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, said that although he could not boycott publishing in Elsevier journals entirely, he would refuse to do refereeing or editorial work.

Professor Holcombe described Elsevier’s announcement as a cynical ploy to assuage angry academics, but one that was rendered hollow by the company’s continuing opposition to open-access mandates. Elsevier was merely “hoping to make the boycott fall apart by a token act when they saw the law would not be passed anyway”.

He added: “If you want taxpayer money to do science, the taxpayer has to be able to read the results.”

The capitulation by proponents of the bill meant that “at least the beast has been slain for now”, said Gavin Moodie, the principal policy advisor at RMIT University.

But the fundamental problem remained: “The reward systems in academia rely almost exclusively on the publication system which is dominated by only a few players. This means academics are very limited in what they can do in practical protest.”

The National Health and Research Council announced last week that all council-funded research would have to be deposited in an open source repository within 12 months of publication, under a new policy to be introduced in July.