APA’s Breckler testifies on public access to congressional panel

Steven Breckler, Executive Director for Science, expresses APA’s support for increased public access to federally funded research but urges careful assessment of policy options

By Christine Jamieson

On July 29, 2010, Steven  Breckler, APA’s Executive Director for Science, delivered invited testimony at a congressional hearing on “Public Access to Federally-Funded Research.”  The hearing was held by the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. 

Breckler expressed APA’s support for increased public access to the results of federally funded research but also noted the need for careful consideration of the risks that such policies can pose to scientific publishing.  Emphasizing the value publishers add to research articles through the peer review system and rigorous editing processes, Breckler articulated the potential harm to psychological science and other scientific fields if policies are not designed carefully.

Steven Breckler testifiesAlso testifying on the potential harms of particular public access policies were Allan Adler, representing the Association of American Publishers, and Ralph Oman, an expert in intellectual property law from the George Washington University Law School.  Other witnesses who placed emphasis on the need for greater access to research results for scientists and patients included Richard Roberts of New England Biolabs, Sharon Terry of the Genetic Alliance, and Sophia Colamarino of Autism Speaks. 

Of the Subcommittee members present at the hearing, Representatives Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) expressed the most concern regarding the risks of public access policies.  “Journal publishers invest a significant amount of money and provide a valuable service to the scientific community and the nation in peer-reviewed editing, publication, and dissemination of research articles,” read Rep. Chaffetz in an opening statement.  Rep. Maloney spoke emphatically about the importance of preserving the quality of scientific scholarship in the United States.

Rather than focus on a specific piece of legislation, the hearing explored the feasibility of various policy options. Current federal public access policy requires that all National Institutes of Health (NIH) grantees arrange for the deposit of an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscript upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available through the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central database within a year of the official date of publication.  Witnesses and Subcommittee members referred to recurring legislative efforts to extend federal public access policies beyond the NIH, and to establish a six-month embargo period between the dates of publication and public availability through free federal government databases.

Breckler indicated that reducing the embargo period to 6 months would have damaging effects for APA and other scientific publishers.  He explained that policy makers need to consider the variability across scientific fields of the period in which articles are accessed and used.   While biomedical research articles may have an average “shelf-life” of one year in which they receive the most uses, publications in the social and behavioral sciences may have a shelf life of five years or more.  Downloads of online APA journal articles within the first year of publication account for only 16% of the eventual total downloads of those articles.  Thus, with even a one-year embargo, social and behavioral science publishers do not receive revenue (including subscriptions and advertising) for the majority of uses of their articles.

Other risks associated with existing and proposed public access policies, Breckler said, include transfer of the burden of publishing costs onto authors and the commercial exploitation of intellectual property.

Breckler called for further examination into the best methods for increasing access to results of federally-funded research.  He expressed APA’s support for the establishment of an inter-agency working group, as recommended by the Office of Science and Technology Policy Scholarly Publishing Roundtable and contained in legislation currently under review in both the House and Senate.  He also called attention to the public access policy of the National Science Foundation (NSF) as an alternative model.  NSF policy requires researchers to submit their final project report and citations of published research, to be made publicly available on the NSF website.  Additionally, to make scientific research more widely available to the general public, Breckler suggested a mandate for federal research agencies to engage more extensively in public education, utilizing science writers to produce educational resources from the results of federally-supported research.

All witnesses’ testimonies can be found on the website of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.


Christine Jamieson is Science Policy Associate in the APA Science Government Relations Office.