An argument can be made that research supported by government money should be made available to the public without them having to buy it a second time through a journal subscription. That’s part of the motivation of the Open Access movement, and of related journals like those supported by the Public Library of Science. The National Institutes of Health requires grantees deposit copies of their work into a publicly available database that it runs. Some journals make older articles available for free after a certain period of time.
Recently introduced legislation would spread open access past the NIH and across the government. S. 1373, introduced by Senator Lieberman of Connecticut, would require “each Federal agency with extramural research expenditures of over $100,000,000” to develop an open access research policy. Such a policy would include submitting a copy of the final manuscript of research papers accepted for publication and supported in whole or in part by federal funding. The agencies would make the papers available to the public no later than 6 months after journal publication. Classified research and preliminary work (lab notes, progress reports, etc.) would be among the exceptions under the legislation.
This is pretty significant legislation. Of the journals I’m familiar with, articles usually don’t become free until at least a year after publication. Additionally, the threshhold amount for this bill would cover eight federal departments in addition to NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation. However, there is no companion effort in the House. In fact, Representative Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a bill earlier this year to roll back the National Institutes of Health open access policy, so it might be tough to push Senator Lieberman’s bill through the House if it passes the Senate.
CORRECTION (12/24): I had previously identified this bill incorrectly as S. 1363.