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Publicly funded research for a price

The Journal of the American Medical Association

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Kai Ryssdal: A lot of the scientific research that goes on in this country is really expensive. And, as it happens, a lot of it is publicly funded. But when taxpayers want to read a particular study that has been paid for with their money, they have to pay again to read about it in, say, The New England Journal of Medicine.

Congress is about to take up a bill that would help companies that publish those kinds of journals protect their business models. But it would also limit general access to publicly funded research. Janet Babin reports now from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.


JANET BABIN: People who grew up with the Internet expect information to be free. That's what 21-year-old Josh Sommer thought.

In 2006 he was a typical college freshman. Studying environmental engineering, hanging out, making new friends. Suddenly, he started to get severe headaches. He had a series of routine tests.

Josh Sommer: End up having an MRI and being told that I have a mass right in the very center of my head, entwined with critical arteries, in one of the most difficult locations to operate on.

The cancer Josh has is called Chordoma. It's a rare disease with a low survival rate. Even doctors don't know much about it. So Josh threw himself into Chordoma research. He Googled the disease to find out all he could about it, but kept hitting roadblocks.

Sommer: I'd find an abstract, and I'd click on it. And oh, you have to pay $60 to read this article. Oh, you have to pay $40 to read this article. I mean, I have this disease, I want to know about it.

Journal subscriptions -- like the Journal of the American Medical Association -- can cost thousands of dollars each year. With universities and libraries trimming budgets, they can't afford all of them either.

What Josh needed was free access to the research online.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health unlocked the gates on a lot of research. Through its Web portal called PubMed Central, you can now search research papers for any disease scientists are studying with public funds. It's an estimated 80,000 articles a year.

Duke University law professor James Boyle says open access is only fair.

James Boyle: Why would you possibly say that when the taxpayers funded something, then the public can't get to read it afterwards without paying again?

Well, you might say it if you were a publisher. Martin Frank is executive director of the American Physiological Society. The nonprofit group publishes more than a dozen medical journals.

Martin Frank: The question is whether or not the NIH policy compromises the ability for a publisher to recover the inherent costs of producing a product.

The publishing industry argues the NIH policy strains their budgets. Frank says subscription sales are slipping, and the cost to edit and peer review each article is rising. He and other publishers support a proposed law that would reverse the NIH open-access policy. It's called the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act.

Professor Boyle, at Duke, says the law would not only lock out patients, but also researchers.

Boyle: The Web works great for porn or for shoes, or for flirting on social networks. But it doesn't work really well for science. We haven't done for science what we did on the rest of the Web, which is basically to have this open Web with everything linked together.

Increasingly, open access to research is demanded, even by the academics creating the content. Laura Janneck is a med student at Case Western, and studies public health at Harvard. She says journal publishers need to change their business model.

Laura Janneck: I mean this is how capitalism works, right? The strong companies are the ones who can adapt to the changing environment, and you can't prevent information technology from progressing as it is.

Publishers might change their business model by making authors pay to have their own articles published. But some researchers might try to cover those fees with public funds. So an author-pays model could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run, than if they just paid to see the articles they're interested in.

In Durham, N.C., I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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