A recently introduced bill in the House of Representatives would bar the federal government from mandating that the public have free access to the research it funds. The Research Works Act (HR 3699), co-sponsored by Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), was introduced on December 16, 2011, and is strongly backed by the Association of American publishers, which, in a statement, characterized the bill as “preventing regulatory interference with private-sector research publishers.” But critics, including academics and the library community, are blasting the bill, calling it a “perplexing turn of events.”

The bill, now headed to committee, is the latest effort by publishers to push Congress to outlaw public access policies since 2008, when the National Institutes of Health adopted a requirement that researchers, as a condition of receiving federal funding, must deposit their final research papers in a government archive to be made publicly available within a year of publication. In 2009, publishers pushed a similar bill, the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” which also sought to bar public access policies, but the effort was abandoned.

The text of the Research Works Act is brief, but in a statement AAP officials say the bill would "pre-empt" federal agencies’ “planned funding, development and back-office administration of their own electronic repositories,” which, AAP claims, “unfairly compete” with established publishers.

“The Research Works Act will prohibit federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles that report on research which, to some degree, has been federally-funded but is produced and published by private sector publishers,” said Tom Allen, president and CEO, Association of American Publishers. “Journal articles are widely available in major academic centers, public libraries, universities, interlibrary loan programs and online databases. Many academic, professional and business organizations provide staffs and members with access to such content.”

The bill, however, has awakened public access advocates, and sparked a strong response. On his blog, Duke University Scholarly Communication Officer Kevin Smith said he was “stunned by the audacity” of Allen’s claim that research articles are “produced” by private sector publishers. “I think the producers of these works are sitting at desks and labs scattered around my campus, and thousands of other college and university campuses,” Smith wrote. “We cannot say it often enough. The intellectual work for scholarly publications is done by academics, not publishers. They own the copyright in those works up until they are asked to transfer it to the publisher as a condition of publication. And if publishers persist in interfering with that copyright ownership and insisting that scholars cannot take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that digital technologies offer, the solution is to stop giving them those copyrights.”

U.C. Berkeley scientist Michael Eisen, a strong advocate of open access, has called on the University of California Press to quit the Association of American Publishers over the the group's efforts to block public access provisions. “The [UC] Press should denounce this bill and suspend its membership in the AAP until it reverses its opposition to the NIH Public Access policy. If it does not, the University must terminate their relationship immediately,” Eisen wrote, saying that the press, through its membership in AAP, was “complicit in this atrocious effort to place the private interests of a small number of publishers ahead of the public good.”

Officials at the major library organizations have vowed to track the bill, but as the battle heats up, the Research Works Act appears to be facing an uphill battle in Congress. In 2010, Congress introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which would do the opposite of the Research Works Act: it would mandate public access to publicly-funded research. Under its provisions, FRPAA, if passed, would require all federal agencies with annual extramural research budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with online access to research manuscripts within six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.