Imagine that your local government built a nice green park -- but when you tried to have a picnic, a private firm demanded payment for admission.
That's roughly how it works with scientific research. Much of it is paid for by taxpayers; 11 federal agencies, the largest funders of unclassified research, spend a staggering $60 billion a year. Taxpayers spend billions more on other kinds of research, or on scientists and labs at state universities. Taxpayers even foot part of the bill for donations to private institutions, since someone has to make up for revenue lost when donors take a tax deduction.
Yet those same taxpayers have to buy back the fruits of the research they've funded -- in the form of high-priced academic journals published by profit-making companies. If your child has an obscure disease, for instance, you can't catch up on the latest science without access to a major research library.
University librarians, whose institutions are often funded by -- you guessed it -- the taxpayers, have complained for years of soaring journal prices, with good reason. From the 2004/5 academic year to 2010/11, Stony Brook University reports, subscription costs for comparable journals rose 75 percent. Nationally, median spending for journals at 100 big research libraries rose to nearly $7.2 million in 2010, up from $1.5 million in 1986.
Just how much do academic journals cost these days? Well, a print-and-online subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology runs a cool $35,489 for institutional customers.
Since 2008, the National Institutes of Health have required that research papers arising from NIH grants -- around 90,000 annually -- be made available to the public on the Internet within a year. Now Elsevier, the leading publisher of academic journals, is backing truly terrible legislation called the Research Works Act, which would bar Uncle Sam from requiring "network dissemination" of such work without its publisher's approval.
The proposal has set off a furor among scientists. The company's prices and its support of legislation seen as restricting the flow of knowledge have sparked a boycott of Elsevier by more than 7,300 scientists -- a number growing daily -- from research institutions all over the world.
The journal system, which converts public research dollars into private publishing profits, has long been a source of discontent among scientists and librarians, but they were stuck with it because these "peer reviewed" journals were crucial for disseminating discoveries -- not to mention getting tenure, promotions and funding. Journals are still important for career purposes, but for spreading news of discoveries, the Internet is changing everything.
Scientific research is too important to keep bottled up -- and too expensive to keep from taxpayers, who fund so much modern science. A report from the Center for Economic Development, a nonpartisan group of business and academic leaders, found that making research freely available accelerates discovery and economic growth. (The report also found no good evidence the NIH policy of mandatory disclosure harms journal publishers.) Making new science available on the Internet could also hasten corrections to faulty research, by exposing it to a wider audience.
That's why the Research Works Act would be a big step backward. Instead, Congress should adopt the proposed Federal Research Public Access Act. That would require free access to virtually all federally funded unclassified research within six months of publication.
Even that seems long. Eventually, all scientific papers likely will be published on the Internet -- and freely available. There are already nearly 7,500 open-access, peer-reviewed journals, with more than 750,000 articles. The nonprofit Public Library of Science, for example, publishes journals in biology, genetics and other fields online for all to see. For taxpayers who care about science, this model offers not just a picnic, but a feast.