GAO-13-279SP: Information technology: 10. Dissemination of Technical Research Reports

Information technology > 10. Dissemination of Technical Research Reports

Congress may wish to consider whether the fee-based model under which the National Technical Information Service currently operates for disseminating technical information is still viable or appropriate, given that many of the reports overlap with similar information available from the issuing organizations or other sources for free.

Why This Area Is Important

The Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS) was established by statute in 1950 to collect scientific and technical research reports, maintain a bibliographic record and repository of these reports, and disseminate them to the public. Since then, NTIS has served as a permanent repository and disseminator of scientific, technical, engineering, and business-related information and is required by statute to be self-sustaining to the fullest extent feasible by charging fees for its products and services.[1] NTIS acquires the information in its collection largely in the form of research reports—primarily from federal agencies and their contractors and grantees, as well as from other domestic and foreign sources. The agency estimates that it maintains in its central repository more than 2.5 million records covering 378 technical and business-related subject areas. In addition, NTIS performs various fee-based information services for other federal agencies. For example, through a memorandum of understanding or interagency agreement, NTIS provides access to information collected from federal agencies, and in some instances it repackages the information with additional features. Further, NTIS performs various fee-based services for other federal agencies that are less directly related to its basic statutory function of collecting and disseminating scientific and technical information, including distribution and order fulfillment, web hosting, and e-training. The agency reported cumulative net revenues of $1.5 million as of September 30, 2011, which resulted primarily from services less directly related to its statutory function.

In May 2001, GAO reported on NTIS’s operations, noting, among other things, the availability of many of the reports maintained in its repository from other sources, such as the originating agencies’ websites. GAO noted that NTIS was providing a variety of other fee-based services for agencies and that, while demand for electronic products was on the rise, research reports and other scientific, technical, and engineering information maintained by NTIS were also becoming increasingly available on agency websites and through other public sources—often at no cost. GAO suggested that Congress look at how scientific, technical, and engineering information was defined; whether there was a need for a central repository of this information; and, if a central repository was maintained, whether all information should be retained permanently, and what business model should be used to manage it.

In comments on a draft of the 2001 report, the Secretary of Commerce agreed with GAO’s assessment and raised a fundamental question of whether there was a need for a central repository in view of the increasing availability of newer publications from sources other than NTIS. The Secretary also noted that the need for a central repository depended on whether the information would be permanently maintained by agencies and whether the information would be easy to locate without the kind of bibliographic control that NTIS provides.

Subsequent to the issuance of GAO’s May 2001 report, Congress took actions toward reexamining the role of NTIS. In December 2003, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act was enacted, which provided a coordinated federal approach to stimulating nanotechnology research and development. The act directed the Secretary of Commerce to establish a clearinghouse for information related to the commercialization of nanotechnology research using the resources of NTIS to the extent possible. As of September 2012, NTIS noted that it held over 700 publications in its nanotechnology collection. The act did not make further changes to NTIS’s role as a central repository.



[1]15 USC § 1153. NTIS’s product offerings include, among other things, subscription access to technical reports contained in its repository in both print and electronic formats; its services include the distribution of print-based informational materials to federal agencies’ constituents and digitization and scanning services.

What GAO Found

In a November 2012 report, GAO updated aspects of its previous report and estimated that, on the basis of a sample of 384 of the 841,502 reports in its repository added to NTIS’s collection and made available for sale from fiscal years 1990 through 2011, most of the reports were readily available from other public websites, and nearly all of them could be obtained for free.[1] Specifically, GAO estimated that approximately 621,917, or about 74 percent, of the 841,502 reports were readily available from one of the other four publicly available sources GAO searched (i.e., the issuing organization’s website; the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System website; the U.S. government’s official web portal, USA.gov; or another website located through a search of Google, a commercial search engine).[2] The source that most often had the reports GAO was searching for was another website located at http://www.Google.com. The figure below shows the estimated availability of reports added to NTIS’s repository since fiscal year 1990 by date of publication.

Estimated Availability of Reports by Year of Publicationa

Estimated Availability of Reports by Year of Publication

aThe percentage shown inside each bar is the actual estimate.

In addition, about 95 percent of the reports in the sample that were available elsewhere could also be obtained free of charge from one of the four other sources GAO searched.[3] The remaining 5 percent were available from the public sources for a fee.[4] These results show that NTIS disseminates and charges for many reports that overlap with information that is available for free from federal agencies and other public websites. The following are examples of reports that NTIS makes available for a fee and are also available free of charge from the issuing organization’s website:

  • Hazardous Waste Characteristics Scoping Study, November 1996, Environmental Protection Agency, 278 pages. (At NTIS, print on demand[5] costs $73, electronic $25.)

  • Homeland Security: Intelligence Indications and Warning, December 2002, Naval Postgraduate School, 5 pages. (At NTIS, print on demand costs $17, electronic $15.)

  • Export Controls: System for Controlling Exports of High Performance Computing Is Ineffective, 2000, GAO, 60 pages. (At NTIS, print on demand costs $48, electronic $15.)

  • FDA Enforcement Report: July 20, 2011, July 2011, Food and Drug Administration, 28 pages. (At NTIS, print on demand costs $33, electronic $15.)

  • Principal Rare Earth Elements Deposits of the United States: A Summary of Domestic Deposits and a Global Perspective, 2010, Geological Survey, 104 pages. (At NTIS, print on demand costs $60, electronic $25.)

  • 2012 Annual Report: Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue, 2012, GAO, 426 pages. (At NTIS, print on demand costs $99, electronic $35.)

The Director of NTIS acknowledged that the Internet has enabled federal agencies to easily and freely disseminate their information, including scientific, technical, and engineering information products via their own and other websites. Moreover, GAO reported that, over the last several years, NTIS has been experiencing declines in its sales of technical reports, in part because of the increasing availability of this information from other sources. While NTIS has not recovered all of its costs for products through subscriptions and other fees, it has been able to remain financially self-sustaining because of the other service offerings that it provides.[6] NTIS reported that net revenues from all of its functions (products and services) totaled about $1.5 million in fiscal year 2011 because of revenues generated from other product and service offerings, such as the dissemination of products for other federal agencies. However, for its products, over most of the last 11 years, its costs exceeded revenues by an average of about $1.3 million.

NTIS acknowledged in its 2011-2016 Strategic Plan that, because the Internet continues to change the way people acquire and use information and permits federal agencies to make their information products available for free, the agency is challenged to meet its statutory mandate as a self-financing repository and disseminator of technical information. As a result, the agency is taking steps to address the budget shortfall from products by making product and organizational improvements, such as adjusting the NTIS business model to support the increased demand for subscriptions and by reducing staff. Notwithstanding these efforts, NTIS could likely continue to face challenges in recouping the costs of its products given the increasing availability of technical information from other sources. Further, its current model also continues the problem of NTIS charging federal agencies for information that is available for free.



[1]We obtained from NTIS the full list of document accession numbers for the reports added to its repository (841,502 reports) since our previous review in 2001. We subsequently selected a stratified random sample for a total sample size of 384 reports. All of the estimates made with this sample were weighted to reflect the stratified design). The 95 percent confidence interval for the estimated percentage of reports available elsewhere that could be obtained for free is (90.7, 97.5) percentage points.

[2]The 95 percent confidence interval for the estimated percentage of reports available through one or more of the four publicly available sources GAO searched is (67.9, 80.0) percentage points. In identifying the reports’ availability elsewhere, we did not assess whether the report’s content was unaltered from its original issuance.

[3]The 95 percent confidence interval for this estimate is (90.7, 97.5) percentage points.

[4]The 95 percent confidence interval for this estimate is (2.5, 9.3) percentage points.

[5]Print on demand means that once the customer makes a request for the report, NTIS will print out a copy of the report and send it to the customer via U.S. Mail.

[6]As NTIS is a fee-based service entity, its revenues are generated exclusively from its products and services, and all its revenues, expenses, and capital expenditures are expected to be deposited and paid out of its revolving fund.

Actions Needed

In light of the agency’s declining revenue associated with its basic statutory function and the charging for information that is often freely available elsewhere, in November 2012, GAO suggested that Congress may wish to consider the following action:

  • examine the appropriateness and viability of the fee-based model under which NTIS currently operates for disseminating technical information to determine whether the use of this model should be continued.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from products listed in the related GAO products section. To determine the extent to which reports that NTIS collects are readily available from other public sources, GAO searched the Internet to determine if each of the reports included in its sample of 384 of the 841,502 reports in its repository could be found elsewhere and at no cost.[1] Using a tiered approach, GAO searched the following four sources in the order shown: (1) the issuing organization’s website; (2) the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System website—http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys; (3) the federal government Internet portal, USA.gov—http://www.USA.gov; and (4) a web search conducted using the commercial search engine http://www.Google.com. Specifically, GAO determined whether each report was first available at no cost on the issuing organization’s website and, if so, concluded the Internet search at this point. However, if the report was not available, then the search continued to the second source, and so on, until either the report was found to be available at one of the remaining sources or all sources were exhausted.[2] GAO then used its results to estimate the percentage of the total population of NTIS reports added to the repository during fiscal years 1990 through 2011 that was available from other public sources.

All of the results derived from the sample analyses constituted estimates that are subject to sampling errors. These sampling errors measure the extent to which the sample size and structure are likely to differ from the population they represent. Because GAO followed a probability procedure based on random selections, its sample is only one of a large number of samples that GAO might have drawn. Since each sample could have provided different estimates, GAO expressed its confidence in the precision of a particular sample’s results as a 95 percent confidence interval. This is the interval that would contain the actual population value for 95 percent of the samples GAO could have drawn.



[1]We obtained from NTIS the full list of document accession numbers for reports added to its repository (841,502 reports) since our previous review in 2001. We subsequently selected a stratified random sample for a total sample size of 384 reports. All of the estimates made with this sample were weighted to reflect the stratified design.

[2]In identifying the reports’ availability elsewhere, we did not assess whether the reports’ content was unaltered from its original issuance.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the November 2012 report on which this analysis is based, Commerce stated that NTIS did not believe GAO’s conclusions (that the fee-based model under which it operates for disseminating technical information may no longer be viable or appropriate) fully reflected the additional value that NTIS provides. Commerce also stated that, through its federal clearinghouse and repository, the agency provides federally funded reports that are not otherwise readily available, such as most of those issued prior to 1989. Additionally, Commerce stated that NTIS recognizes that it cannot remain financially solvent solely through sales and subscriptions of technical reports with expectations that these products will be widely available for free. The agency acknowledged the decline in sales of NTIS’s technical reports, in part because of the increasing availability of this information from other sources, including websites and Internet search tools, and often at no charge.

GAO maintains that the fee-based model under which NTIS currently operates for disseminating technical information may no longer be viable or appropriate. GAO’s November 2012 report highlighted various initiatives that NTIS has undertaken to provide older reports that might not otherwise be readily available and to increase the value of its technical reports, information management services, and technology transfer capabilities. However, GAO found that the demand for older holdings in the agency’s repository is lower than for new publications. For example, GAO estimated that between 96 and 100 percent of the reports published from 2001 through 2011 had been distributed (sold), while only 21 percent of reports published in 1989 or earlier were distributed during this period. Also, the agency’s net revenue now comes primarily from services that are less directly related to its basic statutory function, while sales of its technical information products have resulted in net losses.

GAO provided a draft of this report sectionto the Department of Commerce for its review and comment. In response, Commerce stated that it believes that its earlier comments on our November 2012 report continue to be pertinent and relevant to recognizing the unique and permanent value that NTIS’s repository and clearinghouse provides to the public, academia, and research communities. In addition, Commerce stated that NTIS remains committed to successfully performing its statutory mission of efficiently and perpetually making available the results of authenticated federally funded science research.

For additional information about this area, contact Valerie C. Melvin at (202) 512-6304 or melvinv@gao.gov.