Ensuring Public Access to Scientific Research

WhiteHouse.gov PetitionsIn May of last year, a petition was added to WhiteHouse.gov’s We the People site, requesting that the government of the United States “require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.” Much research that receives federal funding (which is to say, citizens’ tax dollars) is not subject to any kind of open access policy; that is, the results of the research may be published in journals and archived in digital repositories behind passwords and paywalls. The general public, and indeed many in the academic community, can have a hard time accessing information that can advance social welfare and inform additional research. The petition specifically references the successful Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health, which requires the results of NIH-funded research to be submitted to the open PubMed Central archive within 12 months of initial publication.

The petition gathered more than 65,000 signatures, falling rather short of the 100,000-in-30-days mark needed to guarantee a response from the Executive.

Nevertheless, last week the White House did respond to the petition, and in a very encouraging fashion. Dr. John Holdren, on the petition page, shared the point of view of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy; among other things, he points out that:

  • federally-funded research spurs innovation in science, business, etc.
  • citizens should reasonably have access to research paid for from tax dollars
  • access to research helps to reduce inefficiencies and duplication of efforts
  • open data (weather, human genome) produces both public and private good (in the billions of dollars)

So on Friday, the White House issued a memorandum (PDF) to the heads of federal agencies with a number of directives; agencies with over $100 million in annual research funding must:

  • leverage existing archives and seek public/private partnerships with journals
  • improve the ease of accessing data, while optimizing interoperability and future-proofing datasets
  • plan for making data available, downloadable, and usable within 12 months of publication (subject to amendment based on stakeholders’ input)
  • provide access to research metadata upon publication
  • use non-proprietary data formats when feasible

The upshot is that we’re likely to see a good deal more progress in strong open access policies for U.S. research; the structure put in place over the next few years will help to define how new research is conducted and disseminated; we can hope, perhaps, for a bit of a snowball effect.

And perhaps we can hope for even more: the bipartisan-sponsored FASTR bill recently introduced in Congress would reduce the 12 month suggested embargo to six, and make open access for federally-funded research law, rather than just Executive policy (credit to Cable Green for raising these points in another forum).

One thought on “Ensuring Public Access to Scientific Research

  1. August 1, 2016

    Fantz Anderson Joseph Reply

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