07/22/2016

Free Access to Scientific Research Comes at a Cost

4:59 minutes

Today, the federal government spends about $60 billion a year on research. That research gets published in scientific journals that institutions, researchers and the public have to pay in order to access.

Many have argued that the government should make this taxpayer-funded research freely available. And now Congress has drafted a piece of legislation that would do just that.

“If you’re a taxpayer, money goes to pay for research, you definitely should have a right to be able to see what that research has produced and you shouldn’t have to pay again,” says City College of New York physics professor Michael Lubell. “There’s another part to it. … There are many entrepreneurs, small businesses, startups who don’t have the money to pay for subscriptions. And if they could read the the results free, it would help innovation and stimulate the economy, create jobs.”

But, Lubell admits it’s not that simple. There are costs associated with reviewing and publishing research, even online.

“The problem is, basically, somebody’s got to pay for it,” Lubell says. “Very simply put, if a researcher writes an article, somebody’s got to vet it. We don’t want to read things that are wrong. We want to make sure that the science is correct. … It takes money and, for high-quality research publications, that’s the cost associated with publishing. So if the reader isn’t going to pay for the the publication, then the author is going to have to do that and that sounds simple, and if there were money to do that nobody would worry. But … the cost of running the scientific publication business for the federal government, if it were to simply support the authors, would amount to another $3 to 4 billion. That’s not chump change.”

In other words? If the government pays for the publishing, that could negatively impact federal budgets, grant awards, and the quality of future scientific research.

There is, however, a possible solution.

“Members of Congress who are interested in this issue and interested in seeing the open access proposition continue and become a reality — there’s a cost and there’s nothing wrong, I believe, in adding another $5 billion to federal research budgets to accomplish this. I think, in the last analysis, it would be helpful — it would help the scientific enterprise and it would make the public believe that they really got their money’s worth,” Lubell says.

—Elizabeth Shockman (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Michael S. Lubell

Michael S. Lubell is the director of public affairs of the American Physical Society and is the Mark W. Zemansky Professor of Physics at the City College of the City University of New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to play “Good Thing, Bad Thing,” because every story has a flip side. And today, the federal government spends about $60 billion a year on scientific research and it’s your money. So if taxpayers pay for federal research, shouldn’t they be able– shouldn’t we all be able– to access it for free?

That’s the argument some scientists– and now Congress– are making, with a new bill that would make federally-funded research open access– or free– to the public, no costly journal subscriptions required. But others aren’t so sure. Here to discuss the good and the bad of open access is Michael Lubell, professor of physics at City College of New York, Director of Public Affairs at the American Physical Society. Good to see you again, Mike.

MICHAEL LUBELL: Good to see you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: All right. What’s the argument supporting this push to make the funding free to the public?

MICHAEL LUBELL: Oh, there were two pieces that you just mentioned. One of them– and that is if your taxpayer money goes to pay for research, you definitely should have a right to be able to see what that research has produced. And you shouldn’t have to pay again.

There’s another part to it. And this is, I think, another compelling argument. And that is that we– there are many entrepreneurs, small businesses, startups who don’t have the money to pay for subscriptions. And if they could read the results free, it would help innovation, stimulate the economy, create jobs. And these are two very compelling arguments.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, sounds great. So what’s the problem?

MICHAEL LUBELL: Well, the problem, basically, somebody’s got to pay for it.

IRA FLATOW: Details.

MICHAEL LUBELL: Yeah, details. They’re always in– you got to get down in the weeds a little bit. Very simply put, if a researcher writes an article and manuscripts– submits it– somebody’s got to vet it.

We don’t want to read things that are wrong. We want to make sure that the science is correct. That’s known as scientific peer review.

Now, that sounds like a simple thing. You just find somebody who’s willing to do it, and many people are and they do it free of charge. But you’ve got to find them, you have to make sure they’re reliable. And you have to negotiate between the author and the reviewer.

This takes time. It takes money. And for high quality research publications, that’s the cost associated with publishing. So if the reader isn’t going to pay for the publication, then the author is going to have to do that.

And that sounds simple. And if there were money to do that, nobody would worry. But you mentioned $60 billion.

The cost of running the scientific publication business for the federal government, if it were to simply support the authors, would amount to another $3 to $4 billion. That’s not chump change. And that’s the problem.

IRA FLATOW: Would this put a chilling effect on people publishing the research?

MICHAEL LUBELL: I don’t think it would put a chilling effect on people, but it would certainly cut back on our ability to fund research. And also cut back on the workforce of the future. For an average person– an average scientist who’s publishing– it basically means, if you have two graduate students doing work in your lab, you’ll probably be down to one. And this is at a time when we we’re already competing with countries that are spending a lot more money on scientific research.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you think and write a lot about this stuff. Do you have any suggestions?

MICHAEL LUBELL: Yes. Well, the suggestion, basically, is to members of Congress who are interested in this issue and interested in seeing the open access proposition continue and become a reality. There’s a cost.

And there’s nothing wrong, I believe, in adding another $5 billion to federal research budgets to accomplish this. I think, in the last analysis, it would be helpful. It would help the enterprise– the scientific enterprise– and it would make the public believe that they really got their money’s worth.

IRA FLATOW: How do the Europeans handle this, and other countries?

MICHAEL LUBELL: Well, the Europeans have a more centralized form of supporting research. And in fact, the big push for open access today– which started in the United States maybe 10 years ago– the big push is now in Europe. Where they expect, by 2020, to have complete open access. But they’re prepared to put up the euros– or, in the case of the UK, pound sterling– and we’ll see whether they can actually get that money to materialize. But that’s what their intention is.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Mike. Michael Lubell, Professor of Physics at the City College of New York. We’re going to take a break. And after the break, remember Dante II? No, not the Italian poet. I’m referring to the robot, which did have something in common with the original Dante.

Dante II explored inferno-like places– volcanoes. Remember that robot? We’re going to talk about the past and review that case as we go into the final vault after this break. Stay with us.

Copyright © 2016 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies.

Meet the Producers and Host

About Katie Feather

Katie Feather is a producer for Science Friday and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.