How you can help the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) become law

As many of you no doubt know, the Federal Research Public Access Act; (FRPAA, pronounced fur-pa) was introduced into the US Congress a few days past.  It’s a terrific bill, which, if it passes, will have the effect of making all US Government-funded scientific research accessible to the public within 6 months of publication.

Open access legislation like FRPAA doesn’t just happen in a vacuum.  The Alliance for Taxpayer Access (ATA) is a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group that works to promote open access policies within the US Government.  The ATA worked with Congress (and many other organizations) to help pass the NIH public access policy in 2008, and have been working for the past several years with members of Congress on FRPAA.

In this post, I interview Heather Joseph, the Executive Director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which convenes the ATA, and ask her about the bill, about next steps, and about how people can help.

Q: Heather, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed! What is FRPAA, and what’s it trying to accomplish?

Thank you, Michael – I’m happy to talk about this bill!

In a nutshell, FRPAA is designed to make sure that the results of scientific research paid for by the public can be accessed by the public. Most people are surprised to learn that this isn’t automatically the case; they assume that if their tax dollars pay for a research study, they should be entitled to read the results.  But the reality is quite different.  Right now, if you want to access articles that report on publicly funded science, you have pay to do so, either through a subscription to a scientific journal (which can cost thousands of dollars a year), or though pay-per-view, which can easily cost upwards of $30 per article. This presents an often-unsurmountable obstacle for exactly those people who most want (or need) access – scientists, students, teachers, physicians, entrepreneurs – who too often find themselves unable to afford such fees, and end up locked out of the game.

Out of eleven federal agencies that fund science here in the United States, only one – the National Institutes of Health – actually has a policy that ensures that the public can freely access the results of their funded research online. FRPAA is designed to tackle this issue head on, and to make sure that the science stemming from all U.S. agencies is made freely available to anyone who wants to use. it.

FRPAA is a very straightforward bill – it simply says that if you receive money from a U.S. Agency to do scientific research, you agree (upfront) to make any articles reporting on the results available to the public in a freely accessible online database, no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Q: What is the Alliance for Taxpayer Access (ATA)? What role did the ATA play in advocating for FRPAA?

The ATA is a coalition of groups who are working together to try and craft a positive solution to this problem.  In 2004, the library community (led by my home organization, SPARC) decided that there must be other groups who shared our frustration over the current access situation. We reached out to research organizations, patient advocacy groups, consumer organizations, publishers, student groups – anyone we could think of who shared the goal of unlocking access to taxpayer funded research.  We quickly attracted more than 80 organizations, representing millions of individuals. This created a whole new opportunity to advocate for national access policies from a much stronger position… there really is strength in numbers!

The ATA has evolved into the leading advocacy organization for taxpayer access to the results of taxpayer funded research. We knock on Congressional doors, talking with policymakers about  the current barriers  to access, and about new opportunities for scientific progress once those barriers are brought down. We are all about leveraging the public’s investment in science by making sure that anyone who is interested can easily access and build on this research. That’s how science advances, after all.

Q: In 2008, the Congress passed the NIH public access policy.  Can you tell us about that, and the ATA’s role?

Absolutely!  As I mentioned, the NIH is currently the only U.S. agency that has a policy guaranteeing the public access to the results of its funded research. The idea for the policy surfaced in 2003, when Congress expressed concern that results of the public’s nearly $30 billion annual investment in NIH research were not being made as widely accessible as they should be.  They asked the NIH Director to create a policy to address the problem, setting in motion what would become 4 long years of intense debate in the scientific community. 

Not surprisingly, some journal publishers expressed immediate concern that any policy that provided access to research results through any other channels other than subscription-based journals would irreparably damage their businesses. Because journal publishing is big business (nearly $9 billion in annual revenues) publishers were able to use their long-established trade associations to aggressively lobby the NIH and Congress against the establishment of such a policy.

The scientists, librarians, patients, and others who favored the policy found themselves at a disadvantage, advocating as individual organizations without a coordinated voice. This was the main reason the ATA was established, and we quickly found ourselves at the center of the debate, helping to ensure that all stakeholders who favored the establishment of a public access policy had a way to present a united message to policymakers. Ultimately, Congress passed a landmark policy fully supported by the ATA that was enacted in 2008. 

Q: Who works at the ATA?

The ATA is essentially a virtual coalition. While we’ve grown to represent over 100 organizations, the organization’s advocacy is carried out by a pretty small core group of staff (all of whom have other full time jobs!)  Besides myself, the wonderful Nick Shockey and Andrea Higginbotham are responsible for the coalition’s online presence – keeping our website up to date, maintaining our Congressional Action Center, and keeping our members looped in on various email lists.  We also rely on our incredibly active members to help us continually refine our messages, and look for opportunities to spread the word about our work.  People like Sharon Terry at the Genetic Alliance, Prue Adler at the Association of Research Libraries, and Pat Furlong at Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy are prime examples of some of the people who keep the ATA active on the front lines. Also: there is no cost to join the ATA (SPARC picks up the relatively low tab to keep it humming!); and the door is open for any organization to sign on as a member through our website. If you’re interested, please let us know!

Q: What happens next, with FRPAA?  How does it (hopefully) become law? What could derail it?

The next steps for FRPAA will be for us (and our advocates) to encourage other members of Congress to sign onto the bill as co-sponsors. Generating a nice, robust list of supporting members of Congress is key in helping to keep the profile of the bill high.  Procedurally, the bill will be referred to Committee for further consideration; in the Senate, it will go to the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and in the House, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will receive the bill.  As with any legislation, FRPAA faces an uphill battle in an election year, but given the growing attention this issue has received in the past year (from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to the America COMPETES Act, to the recent Research Works Act), we’re hopeful that the bill can continue to advance.

I think the biggest threat is inaction, so vocal support from stakeholders will be crucial!

Q: What can people do to help FRPAA become law?

The most important thing that people – especially active scientists – can do help advance this bill is to speak out in support of this bill.  And we need folks to speak out in two ways:

First, speak out to your members of Congress. The ATA has an Action Center set up so that you can simply log on, pick your Senators and Representatives, and automatically generate a letter asking them to support FRPAA.  The Action Center has all kinds of information about the bill, including Talking Points, FAQ’a and even template letters, to help make the process as easy as possible. Check it out!

Second, speak out to your colleagues and your community.  Blog about the bill, or spread the word on Twitter.  Consider writing an OpEd for your local newspaper, or writing an article for your organization’s newsletter. The more people become aware of this issue, the more they support it. Help us spread the word!

Q: Finally, how can people follow what the ATA is doing, and keep up with your calls for action?

You can sign onto the Alliance for Taxpayer Access by going to our website. There’s no charge.

If you simply want to be added to our email list for alerts and updates, contact either or myself (  or Andrea Higginbotham (, or follow us on Twitter at @SPARC_NA.


  1. I’m British. Beyond generally spreading the word, is there anything that I as a non-US citizen can do to directly influence the bill’s acceptance?

  2. You can still let the bill’s sponsors know you support the aims of the legislation, and why…they always appreciate thoughtful feedback. It would also be most helpful if you could spread the word, and encourage your colleagues in the U.S. to weigh in with support as well!

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