Prevent Congress from blocking public access to science

Prevent Congress from blocking public access to science

HHave you ever needed to read a research paper, only to find it locked behind a paywall? Your next step was likely to search Sci-Hub, an illegal repository created by Kazakh graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, which provides free access to millions of research papers.

Although Sci-Hub is controversial, its widespread use points to a critical question: Shouldn’t taxpayer-funded research be freely and immediately available to the public? We’re finally one step closer to realizing that vision—as long as Congress doesn’t stand in our way.

Every year, Americans invest hundreds of billions in federal research. For example, in 2022, the US government’s research and development budget was $171 billion. Despite this, Americans – students, researchers, teachers, and the general public – do not have free access to the outputs they fund. US colleges and governments spend tens of billions on journal subscriptions to access published research funded primarily by taxpayer dollars.

The multi-billion-dollar scientific publishing industry is monopolized by a few giant publishing houses such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor and Francis, and SAGE. It ranks among the music and film industries in terms of global revenue, with a profit margin of about 40%, higher than Google, Amazon and Apple. These huge corporations prioritize enormous profits over the needs of the public and researchers.

Over the past decade, the US government has intervened to democratize scientific knowledge generated with public funds. In February 2013, the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released the Holdren memo. The Holdren memorandum directs federal agencies to increase public access to federally funded research by utilizing national repositories for long-term public access and data preservation. However, the memorandum relied on a 12-month post-publication embargo, implemented in subscription-based journals to provide access to research, thus limiting the pace of scientific findings and data sharing.

In August 2022, nearly a decade later, the Biden administration’s OSTP issued the Nelson Memorandum. This transformative note will be a game-changer in open access scholarly publishing. The memorandum directs federal agencies to ensure that all US taxpayers have immediate and free access to US research funded by the federal government, starting in 2027. Since a single scientific article costs an average of $30 to $50 to read for those who do not belong To an institution, he purchased a subscription, Nelson’s note places justice in depth. The Nelson Memorandum pioneers open science and sets a precedent for rapid data sharing by discussing its powerful impact during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In implementing the Nelson Memorandum, for example, the National Institutes of Health has released changes it will make to its public access policy. NIH will make the research results freely available through the National Library of Medicine Publication Archives, at the time of acceptance of the manuscript by the journal without embargo, and will ensure retention rights with the authors. The updated NIH Public Access Policy will allow NIH-funded investigators to charge publication fees, or Article Processing Charges (APCs), on NIH grants. NIH will also monitor journal publishing fees and policies to ensure that they remain reasonable for fair publishing opportunities and to empower taxpayers rather than publishers. This is important: multiple reports show that average publishing fees for open access articles increased by 50% between 2010 and 2019 and continue to rise for large publishers. Without cost control efforts such as those cited by the National Institutes of Health, studies indicate and predict that APC-based business models outperform profits from subscription-based models, ultimately costing taxpayers more.

But it is not clear whether Congress will fully support and implement Nelson’s memorandum in making research freely available to all Americans. In July 2023, the US House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science passed a bill containing Section 552, which prohibits federal resources from implementing the Nelson Memorandum. The Republican-majority House is already pushing for sharp budget cuts on most appropriations spending bills, thus clashing with the Democratic Senate. With no funding agreed upon for the new fiscal year that begins on October 1, the US government is heading toward a shutdown. If Congress approves a temporary funding measure to keep the government going until an agreement is reached, it must remove Section 552 from the bill.

Opposition to the Nelson Memorandum poses a threat to knowledge democracy. Because limiting access to scientific literature prevents participation in education and research, Section 552 represents a calculated attack on the academic inclusion of marginalized identities, consistent with other discriminatory practices, bills, and laws in place in the country. If Congress wants to empower American taxpayers and the millions of students and researchers who drive American science, it must avoid political impediments to free and immediate access to published research funded by taxpayer dollars. We join SPARC, a leading nonprofit organization for open and fair knowledge sharing, in urging all American taxpayers to intervene by contacting Congress to remove Section 552.

Mayank Chugh, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. He is an early career counselor in eLife and former President of the Harvard Medical Postdoctoral Society. Jessica Bulka, Ph.D., serves as CEO of as soon as possiblea researcher-led non-profit organization that works to promote innovation and transparency in life sciences publishing.

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