Universities and publishers of scholarly journals are at odds over a recently proposed Senate bill that would require institutions conducting research funded with federal tax dollars to publish their findings free of charge online, no more than six months after their publication elsewhere.

If passed, the open-access legislation could put an additional strain on campus IT infrastructures, as colleges and universities would be forced to post many of their research results on the web. Still, universities and education groups overwhelmingly support the bill, believing it will further the advancement of knowledge worldwide. Publishers of scholarly journals, on the other hand, fear the bill will undermine their business.

Introduced into the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs by Senators John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the proposed Federal Public Research Access Act of 2006 (S.2695) stipulates that federal agencies investing $100 million or more annually in research will “develop public-access policies relating to research conducted by employees of that agency or from funds administered by that agency.”

The bill also states that, because the federal government funds research with the expectation that it will introduce new ideas and discoveries, and because the internet makes it possible for this information to be disseminated to anyone who wishes to read it, researchers either employed or funded by the federal government should make electronic versions of their final findings available free of charge online within six months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Our bill simply says to all researchers who seek government funding that we want the results of your work to be seen by the largest possible audience. It will ensure that U.S. taxpayers do not have to pay twice for the same research–once to conduct it, and a second time to read it,” said Cornyn in introducing the bill.

Opponents of the bill say scholarly journal subscriptions will suffer. They also claim the bill threatens to undermine the value of peer review by removing publishers’ incentive and their ability to sustain investments in a range of scientific, technical, and medical publishing activities.

Brian D. Crawford, chairman of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the American Association of Publishers, sent a letter to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chair of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, protesting the proposed bill. Undersigned by more than 70 scholarly and publishing organizations, the letter claims the bill “would require the affected federal agencies to develop and maintain costly electronic repositories. To do so, agencies will need to divert millions of dollars away from federal research grants and towards the databases’ costs.”

“Full public access to scientific articles based on government funding has always been central to our mission,” said Crawford, who also is a senior vice president of the American Chemical Society. “Competition demands it, and timely access to high-quality, peer-reviewed journals is fundamental to the scientific process.”

Members of the public may access scientific and medical literature through public libraries, state universities, and other professional, academic, or business affiliations, publishers say. They are concerned that the bill will result in a significant loss of revenue from subscriptions, licensing, and individual article sales, thus making it difficult for them to sustain and recoup the investments they make in support of scientific communication.

“The Cornyn-Lieberman bill would create unnecessary costs for taxpayers, place an unwarranted burden on research investigators, and expropriate the value-added investments made by scientific publishers–many of them not-for-profit associations who depend on publishing income to support pursuit of their scholarly missions, including education and outreach for the next generation of U.S. scientists,” Crawford said.

Publishers invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year in publishing and disseminating peer-reviewed journals, he explained. Those investments ensure the high quality of U.S. taxpayer-supported scientific research by subjecting all articles to a rigorous technical review by experts in specialized fields prior to publication. “Mandating that journal articles be made freely available on government web sites so soon after their publication will be a powerful disincentive for publishers to continue these substantial investments,” he concluded.

Those supporting the bill maintain that providing this “open access” to research results will help disseminate knowledge–and that scholarly journals are becoming increasingly too expensive for libraries and schools to afford.

In an open letter to the higher-education community, the provosts of more than 20 universities, including Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, Syracuse University, and the University of Rochester, voiced support for the bill and its potential to increase the flow of information and produce more research-oriented discussions. “Ease of access and discovery also encourages use by scholars outside traditional disciplinary communities, thus encouraging imaginative and productive scholarly convergence,” they wrote.

“We believe that this legislation represents a watershed [moment] and provides an opportunity for the entire U.S. higher-education and research community to draw upon their traditional partnerships and collaboratively realize the unquestionably good intentions of the bill’s framers–broadening access to publicly funded research in order to accelerate the advancement of knowledge and maximize the related public good,” the letter says.

Its authors acknowledge that the bill might challenge “the academy and scholarly publishers to think and act creatively,” but they add that it does not have to “threaten nor undermine a successful balance of interests.”

In another show of support, 56 liberal-arts college presidents sent an open letter to the higher-education community backing the legislation.

“The Federal Research Public Access Act would be a major step forward in ensuring equitable online access to research literature that is paid for by taxpayers,” the letter says. “Given the scope of research literature that would become available online, it is clear that the adoption of the bill would have significant benefits for the progress of science and the advancement of knowledge.”

Said David Pershing, senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah: “No longer will knowledge created using public funds be limited to the wealthiest institutions and corporations. With everyone having access to up-to-date information, I am confident we will see a higher level of scientific research and innovation. This is a remarkable opportunity for educators and students across the nation.”

Other supporters of the bill include the American Association of Law Libraries, American Library Association, Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, Association of College and Research Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, Medical Library Association, and Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.