Prime Time for Public Access

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By: 
Heather Joseph
Executive Director, SPARC
 
Over the past several months, a remarkable series of events have conspired to bring the issue of access to publicly funded research squarely to the forefront of the public consciousness.
 
In November, the White House signaled its continuing deep interest, with the Office of Science and Technology Policy issuing a detailed request for public input (RFI) on the potential impact of establishing a national policy framework to ensure public access to the results of federally funded scientific research.  The Administration’s call engaged a broad cross section of the public – researchers, entrepreneurs, higher education leaders, students, publishers, librarians and members of the general public  - in a substantive discussion on how to best address the growing call for improved access to scientific publications and data resulting from publicly funded research.
 
The RFI generated hundreds of thoughtful responses that examined the potential impact that a properly implemented public access policy could have on democratizing access and accelerating scientific progress.  Just as critically, the discussions delved deeply into an exploration of how such access might benefit businesses, speeding the spread of cutting-edge ideas and information needed to spur the development of innovative products and new services, boosting the economy at a time when such a jolt is sorely needed. 
 
At the same time this discussion was taking place, these same stakeholders – plus an even larger set of players - were deeply involved in a crucial policy debate in Congress, struggling to ensure that two proposed anti-piracy bills (SOPA and PIPA) did not irreparably damage the open nature of the Internet.
 
It was against this backdrop that a new piece of legislation, H.R. 3699, The Research Works Act  (RWA), was quietly introduced in mid-December by Reps. Issa (R-CA) and Maloney (D-NY). With no fanfare and no public press release, the bill, which would prohibit U.S. science agencies from requiring public access to their funded research, could have very easily slipped past the public’s radar.  But with all eyes on SOPA, and in particular, Rep. Issa’s very public, positive stance in protecting an open Internet, the contradictions posed by the RWA surfaced quickly, and were met with an unprecedented firestorm of opposition. The blogosphere buzzed, and the mainstream media quickly picked up the story, with articles appearing in publications ranging from the Atlantic to the Economist.   
 
Librarians, students, and patients advocates (traditionally the most vocal proponents of for public access) were joined by important new allies in the open government and business communities in expressing immediate and clear opposition to this bill.  But perhaps of most note was the surge of protest that arose directly from the scientific community.  Researchers whose freedom to share their research papers is directly threatened by the RWA, stepped up to the plate and began speaking out.
 
A remarkable thing occurred; instead of simply voicing concern and moving on, researchers pushed for action.  While the American Association of Publisher endorsed the bill, ten of its member organizations have since issued public statements opposing the bill. Major publishers  - including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of the journal Science, and the Nature Publishing Group – went on the record opposing the RWA, and for the first time, stated their public support for the NIH Public Access policy.
 
Providing yet another platform for disaffected scientists, Fields Medalist Tim Gowers called on his colleagues to stop publishing in or providing editorial review for journals published by Elsevier, the RWA’s staunchest supporter.  A public petition site was quickly established, and in short order more than 4,400 individual researchers have added their signatures. With hundreds of scientists continuing to sign this growing pledge, the challenge now is to ensure that this good intent can be converted into action. 
 
The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA)– a bipartisan bill introduced today into the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives – presents a crucial opportunity for such action. Sponsored by Sens. Cornyn (R-TX), Wyden (D-OR), and Hutchison (R-TX) and Reps. Doyle (D-PA), Clay (D-MO) and Yoder (R-KS).  The bill builds on the successful NIH Public Access policy and would ensure that all articles resulting from U.S. federal science funds are made available, online, to the public within a reasonable time after publication in a peer reviewed journal. 
 
The bill presents a positive counterpoint to the Research Works Act, and provides the opportunity to take concrete action to create a better system for sharing scientific research that works for all stakeholders – especially scientists.  Expressing support for this legislation will build on the momentum generated by the White House-sponsored RFI discussion, and keep the academic and research communities squarely at the forefront of helping to construct a positive, collaborative policy solution to an issue that speaks to the core of how knowledge is shared. 
 
This is a unique moment in time when the spotlight is shining directly on the need for greater public access to taxpayer funder research.  Take action now. For a list of suggested actions you can take, please take a moment to visit our Call to Action page.