Free Access to U.S. Research Papers Could Yield $1 Billion in Benefits
A new economic analysis finds that making taxpayer-funded scientific papers freely available would yield more than $1 billion in benefits to the U.S.
economy over 30 years—five times the costs of archiving the papers.
A team led by John Houghton, an economist at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, examined the potential payoff of expanding a National
Institutes of Health (NIH) policy requiring grantees to post their peer-reviewed manuscripts in a free database after a delay. A proposal in Congress would extend the policy to 11
more research agencies and shorten NIH's 12-month delay to 6 months. Supporters say taxpayers should have free access to the results of research they
paid for; publishers worry that they will be put out of business.
Houghton's model relies on studies suggesting that free papers are downloaded and cited more often than
papers available only by subscription. By increasing accessibility and efficiency by just 1%, the proposed U.S. policy would add $246 million a year to
a 20% return on the 11 agencies' investments in research and development, the model finds.
Those benefits are "substantially greater than the cost of archiving," Houghton says. Over 30 years, his group calculates $1.07 billion in benefits,
which is eight times the costs, or five times counting only benefits remaining in the United States. Funding for the study came from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that
supports public-access policies.
Houghton's team has done a more elaborate analysis of the potential payoff in several European countries from archiving policies like NIH's or
switching entirely to open-access journals, which are free to readers and cover costs by charging authors. In the United Kingdom, for example, he found that open access could save €480 million a year. Publishers a ttacked the study for relying on flawed assumptions.
Houghton calls the criticisms "scare tactics."
At the same time, Houghton acknowledges that if enough papers in traditional journals become freely available, librarians might cancel subscriptions.
"There may be a tipping point," he says.