Putting the “Public” In Publicly-Funded Research

By Corynne McSherry: Sometimes an idea is so blindingly, obviously good that you have to wonder why it hasn’t already been implemented.

A few years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had an idea like that. Why not create a free, public, online archive of findings from research studies that were funded by Americans’ tax dollars? That way, members of the public could keep up to date on the latest health findings by reading about discoveries that they paid for and would otherwise be unable to access.

To ensure academic publishers could recoup any investment made by publishing research in traditional print journals, scientists could wait 12 months before making the research available to the public, but no more. The policy was voluntary at first, then made mandatory — much to the consternation of commercial science publishers. (Make no mistake — scholarly publishing is a significant profit center, for publishers if not authors. For example, a subscription to Brain Research, the leading neuroscience journal, can cost a library over $23,000. Much of that is pure profit, as authors provide the content free of charge.) When Rep. John Conyers introduced legislation to end the policy earlier this year, public criticism and a wave of protest helped stop the bill in its tracks.

Now the Obama Administration (specifically, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP) is considering extending the policy to other federal agencies that fund academic research. For example, the National Science Foundation spends $6 billion a year supporting basic research in America’s colleges and universities. If the fruits of that research were publicly accessible online, the taxpayers who actually paid for it could read and use it in new and interesting ways, just as patients and their families have used the newly accessible NIH-sponsored medical studies to help make informed medical decisions.

Scholars and entrepreneurs could also access the research, promoting innovation in science and technology. Moreover, creating a publicly available research archive is simply fair. Your tax dollars paid for this research; you should have a chance to actually see those dollars at work.

Now, the public has an opportunity to show support for this innovative, common sense idea. Since December, the OSTP has been hosting an involved discussion on their blog, asking for input on every angle of public access, including which federal agencies should adopt public access policies, which file formats could help solve compliance and archival issues, and what the ongoing role of the government should be. The OSTP was originally going to close the comment period on January 7, but the moderators have decided to keep it open until January 14 in light of the holiday season’s effect on the ability of the public to comment.

If you care about the availability of research and want the government to implement a policy that’s good for innovation, consider contributing to the great discussion taking place on the OSTP blog. You can find the complete collection of public access policy blog posts here, and the most recent call for comments here. Even though commercial publishers don’t like it, public access policies are an obvious way to maximize the usefulness of scientific research that taxpayers pay for. Head to the OSTP blog and share some ideas for how it should be done.

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