George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Proposed Open Access Regulation is a Solution in Search of a Problem

a lightbulb shatteringEarlier this week, a coalition of over 125 publishers and non-profit scientific societies joined the Association of American Publishers (AAP) in a letter to the White House expressing serious concerns with a proposed Administration policy that would override intellectual property rights and threaten the advancement of scientific scholarship and innovation. In a flawed attempt to advance open access goals, the policy would require the free and immediate distribution of any proprietary articles that report on research funded by a government agency. But overwhelming opposition by dozens of the most esteemed medical societies and research organizations reveals an ill-conceived and hasty proposal that would not only disregard long-established intellectual property rights, but would also adversely affect U.S. jobs, research, innovation, and global competitiveness.

Like other open access mandate proposals in the past, there has been no evidence offered that the untested models are viable or sustainable or that there are systematic failures in the current scholarly publishing market. In a policy brief published in 2017, CPIP identified similar proposals as nothing but solutions in search of a problem—clear examples of regulatory overreach lacking any empirical evidence of why they are needed and how they would be beneficial.

Proposed Policy Eliminates Any Opportunity to Commercialize

Proprietary articles that report on federally funded research—such as those published in leading medical and scientific journals—are currently subject to public access mandates that require them to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after publication. These mandates are meant to balance the interests of the public in accessing these works with those of publishers and non-profit organizations that bear the costs of producing them. It’s a framework that, while not perfect, reflects the Constitutional objective of securing exclusive rights to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.

Notwithstanding this long-understood trade-off between access and exclusivity, the proposed policy would require the immediate and free distribution of journal articles reporting on any amount of federally funded research. If implemented, the proposal would deny publishers any opportunity to recoup the investments made in development of these labor and cost-intensive works, and many journals and research organizations would simply no longer be able to operate. While the proposal may be rooted in a desire to benefit the public, its complete eradication of the already short 12-month embargo reveals a troubling unawareness of existing markets, the critical role of publishers, and the value of intellectual property.

Untested Model Reflects Unawareness of Creative Ecosystems

Unfortunately, proposals like this reflect a belief by some that in the digital age publishers are merely intermediaries who restrict access to works. Those who promote this narrative also tend to favor short-term access and distribution over sustainable industries, long term R&D, and free markets, but their efforts to impose sweeping open access provisions reveal an ignorance of the inner workings and contributions of the publishing industry.

The reality is that even when federal funding exists for underlying research, significant investments are required by non-profit journals and publishers to translate the research into high-quality articles. These organizations must dedicate time and resources to the review and selection of articles, management of the peer review process, editing, curating, distributing, and long-term stewardship.[i] The publishing industry employs thousands of Americans to carry out these tasks, and they fund their efforts at no cost to taxpayers. Additionally, the sale of journal subscription in hundreds of foreign countries contributes significantly to the U.S. economy and trade balance.

Perhaps most disturbing is that those promoting the proposal seem unaware or unconcerned with the potential devastating impact the policy would have on publishing and scientific communities and America’s leadership in research and innovation. Stakeholders representing the industries that stand to be most affected by an unfettered and unproven open access policy have been left out of discussions, resulting in an ill-considered and inequitable proposal. Furthermore, the fact that the details of Administration policies are sometimes not disclosed until they are announced and implemented raises serious questions about the development of a policy that could have such a significant impact on industries, jobs, and the U.S. economy.

Strong Opposition to an Unsound Policy

Taking into account these numerous problems, it’s not surprising that stakeholders have now joined together to voice their opposition to the proposed policy. Venerable institutions such as the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and the New England Journal of Medicine are just a few of the dozens of scientific, medical, and publishing organizations to challenge the proposal. In addition to these stakeholder organizations, Senator and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property Thom Tillis recently voiced his concerns with the proposal in a letter to Secretary of the Department of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, and to White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney. He writes:

If the current policy is changed—particularly without benefit of public hearings and stakeholder input—it could amount to significant government interference in an otherwise well-functioning private marketplace that gives doctors, scientific researchers and others options about how they want to publish these important contributions to science.

As Senator Tillis and others point out, the proposed policy has been put forward with no input from stakeholders or public comment. No evidence has been presented that a revised policy is needed, nor has the existing marketplace been shown to be dysfunctional.

While the wide distribution of and access to scholarly articles is critical to advancing research and education, it shouldn’t be so overvalued as to disregard all that goes into producing them and the associated intellectual property rights. To do so would represent a short-term fix to a problem that has not been proven to exist and result in untold damage to publishing industries, the economy, and ultimately the public.

[i] For a detailed account of the value-add services provided scholarly publishers, see Professor Adam Mossoff’s article How Copyright Drives Innovation: A Case Study of Scholarly Publishing in the Digital World.