I'm just a bill (Schoolhouse Rocks)
"I'm just a bill" (Schoolhouse Rocks)

On April 15, 2010, the Federal Research Public Access Act (HR 5037), known by its acronym (FRPAA), was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by Michael Dole (D-PA) and five co-sponsors.  It’s the same bill (S 1373) that was introduced last summer into the U.S. Senate by Senators Lieberman and Cornyn.

In its essence, FRPAA would extend the NIH Public Access Policy to all federal agencies that spend more than US$100 million in extramural research.  Like the NIH policy, FRPAA would require deposit of the author’s final manuscript.  Interestingly, it does ask for the final published version if “the publisher consents to the replacement.”

The rationale for this bill is based upon the connection between the free dissemination of scientific results and the advancement of science and the public good:

the Federal Government funds basic and applied research with the expectation that new ideas and discoveries that result from the research, if shared and effectively disseminated, will advance science and improve the lives and welfare of people of the United States and around the world

While much is known about how researchers make use of the scientific literature, much less is known about the consumption of scientific literature by the general public.  Other than anecdotal descriptions — say, of patients bringing medical literature they found online into the doctor’s office — little is known about how the lay public uses the primary literature (e.g., scholarly journal articles) compared to public-focused websites, blogs, and discussion lists.

What is known is that Americans are going online seeking health information.

Periodic telephone surveys of American adults conducted by the Pew Research Center for their Internet & American Life Project reveal that the percentage of adults who look for health information online has increased between 2002 and 2008.  In their 2006 survey, 80% of American Internet users have searched for information on at least one health topic. For those living with a disability or chronic disease, the percentage was even higher (about 86%).  This group was more likely to report that online searching affected their treatment decisions and interactions with doctors.  Respondents who had experienced a health crisis in the past year were also more likely to get a second opinion or ask their doctor new questions based on their research.  Not surprisingly, individuals with home broadband access were more than twice as likely to conduct online health research than dial-up users.

According to these Pew telephone surveys, most Internet users begin their research with a general search engine such as Google when seeking information on a health topic: few report beginning their inquiry at a health-related website.  These results are confirmed by naturalistic observational studies of how laypersons search for online health information in an experimental setting. [1][2][3]

The Pew telephone surveys list many sources of medical information including websites, blogs, commentary, and podcasts, but does not indicate whether the sources were scholarly or professional in nature and makes no specific mention of journals or scientific articles as a source of medical information.

Likewise, the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS), supported and maintained by the National Cancer Institute, asks several questions about the source of health information, but confuses sources, media format, and location.

For example, one question [HC02] asks “The most recent time you looked for information about heath or medical topics, where did you go first?” and reports, among others: Internet (61.0%); Doctor or health care provider (13.9%); Books (8.4%); Brochures, pamphlets, etc. (3.8%); and Magazines (3.4%).  Based on how this question is phrased, it’s difficult to discern what the researcher is implying – or indeed what the survey respondent is thinking – when asked about Internet use. Magazines, books, brochures, and health care providers can be accessed via the Internet.

Most medical and health-related web pages suffer from significant problems dealing with accuracy, bias, and completeness. While laypersons claim that they use a number of criteria in evaluating the credibility of a medical website, in practice, few of them check the credentials of the source and are unable to later recall the sources of their information.  Indeed,  just 15% of telephone survey respondents claimed that they “always” check the source and date of the information, and 10% claimed they did “most of the time”.

If consumer web sites are the source of most health information, there is little that FRPAA will do to improve the transmission of research to the public.  If anything, these websites will start including links to author manuscripts.  But since few of these health sites currently cite the published literature (much of it already free), don’t count on it.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. https://phil-davis.com/


20 Thoughts on "The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), Science, and the Public Good"

I don’t think sharing primary research with the public is going to increase medical knowledge to a great degree. We all know that medical research is a members club, and the fee is typically higher education of some sorts in the life sciences.

If there were some sort of middle ground, perhaps money pumped into an initiative to (for want of a better phrase), ‘dumb down’ research allowing the layperson to get the idea of the article, understand why it is important and be able to see how it affects them. Journals are trying hard to make abstracts more accessible, but science is difficult and requires precise terminology. An abstract can only go so far before it ceases to communicate the intended message effectively.

I hadn’t heard of it but in the light of a quick website check my position has changed –

The money spent on introducing the Federal Research Public Access Act could have been far better used to print out several million patientINFORM leaflets and distribute them in hospital waiting rooms.

There is some confusion here. First of all, medical research is already being posted under the NIH policy. FRPAA expends that practice to non-medical research, so should have little effect on dissemination of medical information.

Second, the general public cannot understand journal literature; only experts can do that. The goal of FRPAA is to facilitate diffusion of research results within the research community. It does this by making the (submitted) contents of subscription journals freely accessible after a year or so. This is not a public information exercise.

I don’t think there’s any confusion here. You’re right, the NIH policy covers medical research, but the point is that even that research isn’t being used by the public, so the FRPAA is even less relevant extended to other fields. As for the goal being access to scientists, that’s never been an objective. As the Lieberman-Cornyn bill of 2006 read, “Public access to research is important because it ensures that taxpayers reap a maximum return on their investment in government funded research, and benefit from accelerated discovery.” That’s clearly a public information exercise. The FRPAA points to its predecessor, and has echoes of this same language.

Accelerated discovery only occurs because other researchers have access to the articles. They are the public in question. Laymen reading journal articles does not accelerate discovery. You need to go beyond the political rhetoric to the reality of how science works. When I promote FRPAA to a congressional staffer I don’t do it in terms of laymen reading Physical Review articles. They can’t.

Scientist-access is not the sole goal of FRPAA. Unless you have inside knowledge that the public-access argument is a shill, the public are a key reason for this bill. The language in the text of the bill is unambiguous:

“available to every scientist, physician, educator, and citizen at home, in school, or in a library”

Legislation almost never has a “sole goal.” But ask yourself who can usefully read the typical journal article, or wants to? They are the relevant “public.” It includes some educators, some journalists, some lay experts, etc., but the overwhelming numbers are fellow experts. The science committees’ staffers understand this. The rest do not because they have never seen a journal article, so we just say public access and leave it at that. After all, politics is the art of inclusion.

I have problems with this claim: “Most medical and health-related web pages suffer from significant problems dealing with accuracy, bias, and completeness.”

First of all, compared to what? So far as I can tell medical information on the Web is just as good as Web information about other topics, if not better. That is, it meets the standard of Web information. It should do no more. The Web is the Web.

Second, all medical information sources suffer from “significant problems dealing with accuracy, bias, and completeness.” Talking to your doctor is probably the worst because speech is worse than writing, the content being transitory.

Moreover, there is no such thing as completeness when it comes to a scientific topic. Scientific knowledge is a seamless web of belief.

Your comments ignore entirely the public good that comes from “the advancement of science.” Ignored entirely is the benefit of augmenting scientific and academic researchers’ access to publicly funded research, likely one of the more important benefits made possible by the bill.

Need for such is exemplified in Ken Master’s finding that medical researchers use file sharing systems to access fee-based research for free to a significant degree. (Internet Journal of Medical Informatics 5(1) 2009.)

Focusing on how, possibly, the general public may not maximize the use of research it pays for to discount the bill’s value while ignoring the direct and indirect benefits of providing access to scientific and academic communities seems a tad disingenuous. Red herring.

My post was not written to be a comprehensive dissertation on all sides of the topic. There has been much written on how scholars use the scientific literature; much less about how the lay public uses the literature. This piece focuses on the lay public and I make this explicit early in the post. No disingenuous intent. No red herring.

I do see your point that there may be a trickle-down effect to the public, but this argument would be based on the fraction of federally funded research being available after a significant delay and available in a manuscript form.

This article may give some background to how the general public uses and finds scientific information, but it is now 10 years old. I could probably use the WOS to see who more recently cites this article, but you probably have that as well. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/72516462/abstract “Scientific literacy: Another look at its historical and contemporary meanings and its relationship to science education reform” George E. DeBoer, Scientific literacy is a term that has been used since the late 1950s to describe a desired familiarity with science on the part of the general public.

I should also note that a recent report at UPenn looked at what people emailed the most from the New York times. (The demographics of the readership of the NYTimes would indicate that they are high level readers, but certainly not just scientists.) The author said “Science stories did surprisingly well, even longer and more complicated ones, because they shook what people thought they knew.” http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/02/shock-and-awe-viral-news-is-good-news This certainly documents that the general public is interested in learning more about science topics.

You seem to confirm (not refute) my point: there is public interest in scientific research. But the interest is in the digested, journalist version of science, not in the original research version.

If publishers revealed what their “turn-away” access data was to the primary research, I bet we would see that many non-subscribers are trying to get access, but they would rather not pay $30 per article. I will follow up with some non-profit societies to see what turn-away data they have. I wonder if commercial publishers like Elsevier or Wiley would be able to do the same.

Joe, you are confusing “non-subscriber” with “general public” here. Not all non-subscribers are the general public. Duke University is a non-subscriber of many thousands of journals.

If you are interested in public access to primary research articles, you might be better asking for data from companies such as DeepDyve.

It’s also a poor measure of whether the turned-away reader was actually interested in or capable of reading the journal article. Most journals get a lot of traffic from Google, readers who click on the first link offered, see that it’s not what they want or something they can’t understand and they quickly bail. This sort of traffic is not indicative of a general public deeply engaged in the scientific literature as published on an expert level.

@Phil, Joe

I would add that interest in digested research is not just coming from the public – science is so granular these days that generalists (general practitioners for example) and even specialists require some dilution when viewing papers outside their discipline.

The journalistic version of science is certainly not good enough for these stakeholders, and might not even suit the needs of the educated public because the facts are frequently distorted.

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