Jim's Weekly Column
Open Access Aids Science Research
No one likes paying for the same thing twice. This holds true for federally funded scientific research. For years, scholarly journals have relied on taxpayers paying for research on the front end and access to the results on the back. It is past time to embrace an open access policy for scientific research.
In fiscal year 2012, Washington spent nearly $139 billion of taxpayer money on federal research and development activities — a significant investment in the age of record deficits, growing debt and an ill-advised sequester. But despite substantial spending on research, American taxpayers do not have adequate access to the results of their investment.
Open access to this research has been debated for several years. Advocates have argued that the ability to freely access government-funded information is not only fair but also enables innovation otherwise stymied by pay walls and restrictive websites.
Scientific advances are collaborative. Innovation sparks further innovation as researchers exchange ideas. Through open access, we will see less duplicative research and an increase in scientific breakthroughs — sometimes from unexpected places.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy made positive strides toward open access earlier this year by releasing a proactive framework, but Congress has the responsibility to place an open access policy into law, making it less susceptible to shifting political winds and priorities.
Fortunately, there is already a system in place that showcases the value of open access. The National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central was created in 2007 to allow researchers to freely access NIH-funded research publications. The policy requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed manuscripts to the database, which NIH makes publicly available after one year. This “cooling off” period gives publishers adequate time to exclusively offer these works, preserving the business model that enables a thorough peer review process and producing a polished final product.
But it is time to expand this policy to all federally funded research. The principles of taxpayer fairness and scientific advancement that justify open access to medical research are equally applicable to other federally funded research. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will take up several bills to reauthorize government agencies that fall under the committee’s jurisdiction. Through these reauthorizations, we can begin to codify a real open access policy, building off the work already started by OSTP and ensuring American taxpayers are fairly seeing the fruits of their investment into scientific research.
Critics of a governmentwide open access policy argue that not all publications fit the mold set by health care research. The medical research published on PubMed is cutting edge and fast-paced, and a one-year waiting period is sufficient for journals to recoup their costs before the manuscripts are publicly available. But other scientific publications, with lower circulation, may take years to recoup their publication costs because of lower demand and slower innovation in the field.
This issue is remedied by giving flexibility to the funding agency to develop its own standards for open access. By working with relevant stakeholders, the agencies can strike the right balance between maintaining a meaningful publisher model while granting researchers access to taxpayer funded research. As long as these policies keep public access as the focus, each individual agency should be given the autonomy to create its own repository.
Work done by the publishers to ensure a robust field of refined, peer-reviewed scientific articles and journals is commendable, and the NIH’s PubMed has shown that this business model can coexist within an open access framework.
The Feb. 22 memo by the OSTP that lays out the White House’s position on open access states, “[t]he administration is committed to ensuring that […] the direct results of federally funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community.” This proposal moves in the right direction, but it is on Congress to put a concrete open access policy into law.
Meaningful open access policies will foster innovation, protect taxpayers’ investments and keep America on the cutting edge of science and technology. The American people deserve access to the research they have paid for.