Reps. Issa And Maloney Team Up To Obstruct Access To Medical Research (Again)

January 10, 2012 9:00 am ET — Brian Powell

Darrell Issa

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, invests "over $31.2 billion annually in medical research for the American people," making it the biggest financier of medical research in the world. This is a significant investment for the American people, but the research into chronic and infectious diseases, medical technology, and general human health has provided invaluable returns on that commitment. Since 2008, when NIH implemented a congressionally approved open-access policy, one of those returns has been free public access to the results of those taxpayer-funded studies.

But since 2008, the science, technology and medical (STM) publishing industry has been spending big money trying to coax members of Congress into shutting down this benefit. Just before Christmas, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the third incarnation of the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699), a twice-failed bill that would "prohibit federal agencies from conditioning their grants to require that articles reporting on publicly funded research be made accessible to the public online."

Issa has received tens of thousands of dollars from the STM publishing industry in support of the bills, and his co-sponsor on the Research Works Act, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY), is one of the top two recipients of money from special interest groups that support H.R. 3699. Interest groups that supported a previous version of the bill, which Maloney also co-sponsored, lined her pockets to over six figures

The financial connections have raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers among members of the scientific community, who see the bill as an industry favor that benefits a few specific companies at the expense of a significant public good. Michael Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley, writes:

Why, you might ask, would Carolyn Maloney, representing a liberal Democratic district in New York City that is home to many research institutions, sponsor such a reactionary piece of legislation that benefits a group of wealthy publishers at the expense of the American public? Hmm. Wouldn't happen to have anything to do with the fact that she's the biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the publishing industry, would it?

According to MapLight, which tracks political contributions, Dutch publisher Elsevier and its senior executives made 31 contributions to members of the House in 2011, of which 12 went to Representative Maloney. This includes contributions from 11 senior executives or partners, only one of whom is a resident of her district.

Proponents of the bill argue that, unlike the researchers themselves, the publishers of journal articles that are based on the publicly funded studies receive no federal funding, so the free access policy unfairly disadvantages their ability to make a profit. The Association of American Publishers sums it up, claiming the Research Works Act will prevent "regulatory interference with private-sector research publishers in the production, peer review and publication" of scientific journals.

Issa attempted to justify his position on the Research Works Act, which some view as at odds with his recent attacks on the Stop Online Piracy Act, by arguing that we must "protect the value added to publicly funded research by the private sector and ensure that there is still an active commercial and non-profit research community."

On the latter, Issa is being disingenuous — the STM publishing market grew 3.4 percent in 2011 to $21.1 billion despite global belt-tightening and economic uncertainty. Online services, with which the Research Works Act is particularly concerned, saw the fastest growth.

Scientific American writer Janet Stemwedel also questions the "value added" rationale:

The text of the Research Works Act suggests that such private sector journals add value to the research that they publish in the form of peer review and editing. Note, however, that peer review for scientific journals is generally done by other scientists in the relevant field for free. Sure, the journal editors need to be able to scare up some likely candidates for peer reviewers, email them, and secure their cooperation, but the value being added in terms of peer reviewing here is added by volunteers. [...]

Maybe editing adds some value, although journal editors of private sector journals have been taken to task for favoring flashy results, and for occasionally subverting their own peer review process to get those flashy results published. But there's something like agreement that the interaction between scientists that happens in peer review (and in post-publication discussions of research findings) is what makes it scientific knowledge. That is to say, peer review is recognized as the value-adding step science could not do without.

Stemwedel poignantly concludes that "If members of the public have to pay again to access research their tax dollars already paid for, they are likely to be peeved. ... A rightfully angry public could mean less public funding for scientific research — which means that there are pragmatic, as well as ethical, reasons for scientists to oppose the Research Works Act."