KSJ Tracker February 22, 2013

A Victory for Open Access Research

Open door/Deborah Blum

In a policy move, long awaited by open-access advocates, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced today that it is directing federal agencies - notably those with more than $100 million in annual research and development funding - to make the published results of federally-funded research far more freely available to the public.

The move, announced by John Holdren, is aimed at a broad swath of citizens who might be interested in such research results: "The Obama Administration is committed to the proposition that citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for," began the OSTP announcement. The announcement noted that more than 65,000 citizens had recently signed a We the People petition asking that such research be more open to the public.

A Washington Post story by Hayley Tsukayama notes that the new policy is modeled on directives already in place at the National Institutes of Health. The NIH policy  requires grantees to post copies of journal articles and published results that are funded with public money within a year after scientific publication. The OSTP policy will require other large research funding agencies - such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and even the U.S. Department of Defense - to adopt similar plans. Exemptions will be made, however, for national security or legal reasons.

As the Post story also notes: "Renewed interest in open access surfaced following the death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz, who faced felony computer crime charges after downloading thousands of articles from the academic database J-STOR, was found dead in his apartment last month of an apparent suicide." The White House announcement received almost immediate approval, in fact, from open access advocates.

At the Public Library of Science - built from beginning as an open research model - an almost immediate statement was issued "applauding the Obama administration" for taking the stand. At Ars Technica, science editor, John Timmer, called it a good step forward, although pointing out that the directive did not come with any funding support, which may make it difficult to fully develop, say, a new agency digital archive. "Preservation of data and sharing it in a usable form aren't always cheap," Timmer notes. And at the technology news website, O'Reilly Radar, writer Alex Howard, praised the administration's response as an example of democracy at work, a government responding to a direct request from its citizens: "While there are many reasons to be critical of some open government initiatives, it certainly appears that today, We The People were heard in the halls of government".

It's worth noting, though, as a news analysis from Nature reminds us that the "within one year" clause in the directive does insert a significant delay into the process. As Nature's Richard Van Noorden writes, the United States is taking similar approach to the one being adopted by the European Union. By contrast, government in the UK has been leaning toward a policy of more immediate public access - but at the expense of the researchers themselves. Under this plan, the authors of scientific papers would pay publishers to make the work rapidly available. The idea has not been without controversy - as Van Noorden points out, it would require "extra money taken from science budgets" to pay publishers. A final version of that policy is not due, however, until April.

In the meantime - although these aren't changes inspired by the needs of science journalism - we (and our readers, viewers and listeners) are clearly beneficiaries of a move to making more research freely available.  I'm hoping to follow these policies further as they go into place so that we can take advantage of the ways that more and more research - or so we hope - becomes accessible to all of us interested in science as a very open enterprisse.

                                                                                                                                                                                                       -- Deborah Blum


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