A colleague recently suggested that I consider why it was that two groups with putatively similar interests – the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) – seemed to take different positions in regard to the Federal Research Public Access Act (S. 1373 and H.R. 5037), which was the subject of House committee hearings two weeks ago.
The difference seems rather slight at first. David Schulenberger of APLU testified at the hearings and supported the adoption of FRPAA. The AAU, on the other hand, sent a letter to the Committee that was holding the hearing, for inclusion in the hearing record, but never actually mentioned FRPAA. Instead the letter urges passage in the Senate of the America COMPETES Reauthorization bill, which has already passed the House as H.R. 5325. The letter, like Schulenberger’s testimony, expresses support for rapid public access to federally-funded research, but it supports the “collaborative framework” that was agreed upon earlier in the year by the “Scholarly Publishing Roundtable” and which, according to the letter, would be fostered by section 123 of America COMPETES. So it is worthwhile to look at how the two bills differ.
The major difference is in immediacy of impact. FRPAA is a mandate which federal funding agencies would be required to implement. Section 123 of America COMPETES contains no such mandate; instead, it would create an “Inter-agency Public Access Committee” with a charge to “coordinate the development or designation of uniform standards” and “solicit input and recommendations” on “access to the results of federally funded research.” Section 123 also includes precatory language about “the role that scientific publishers play in the peer review process.” In this language I hear echoes of the exaggerated claims about the contribution from publishers that were made at the hearing itself.
I was interested to discover that other librarians seem also to read America COMPETES as something of a delaying tactic, or even as a rearguard effort to undermine public access initiatives already underway. In a joint letter from the Medical Library Association and the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, those two organizations express pleasure at the language about public access included in section 123 but also some concern. Specifically they want a clause inserted that would prevent the proposed inter-agency committee from interfering with the current NIH Public Access Policy, which they see as a well-function model for public access, not a system in need of additional oversight. These two organizations also worry that the language about peer-review overstates the impact that public access has on that system. Whatever the flaws in peer review, and they are many, public access programs like that of the NIH or those proposed under FRPAA have no significant impact on the process; the MLA and AAHSL want to remind Congress of that fact.
My concern that support of Section 123 was a stalking horse to undercut FRPAA was strengthened a bit when I saw a recent report on IP activities from the AAU. In that report what seemed implicit was made explicit; AAU, through its Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, would support FRPAA only with changes that track America COMPETES in terms of the inter-agency coordination but also would include a longer embargo period (even longer than the 12 months specified in the NIH policy) and mandate “formal” consultation with “all stakeholders.” This last change presumably means that funding agencies could not attach requirements to their grants without first talking to publishers (and by the way, is the taxpaying public considered a stakeholder here?). These stipulations leave me wondering to what degree AAU’s support for America COMPETES is a subtle attempt to oppose FRPAA under the guise of endorsing its goals but seeking conditions that would undermine the path to achieving them.