Promoting open access at the federal level

The public deserves to be able to access the research it funds

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this column neglected to include the authors' signature and contact information. They are members of the Legislative Action Subcommittee of the GSC and can be reached at gsc-lasc@mit.edu.

With the increasingly prohibitive cost to access scientific journal articles and the significant amount of research that is funded by the U.S. government, many scientists and taxpayers support measures that increase public access to the results of federally funded research. This “open access” movement aims to establish a policy for federally-funded research to become publicly accessible after an established period of time post-publication, usually within one year. Because this research is funded by U.S. taxpayers, we believe that it is reasonable to expect free access to the fruits of our investment.

Furthermore, in addition to enabling taxpayers to have access to research that they have funded, open access policies enhance opportunities for innovation in this country by allowing more people to utilize existing research. Small businesses, startups, and independent inventors often cannot afford expensive journal subscription packages but would use relatively recent research if it were made available, potentially enhancing competitiveness and economic output. Open access also supports education for high school students, undergraduates and graduate students, whose institutions may not be able to afford extensive journal subscriptions.

Over the past three years, we have pushed Congress to pass bills that establish an open access policy, most recently encapsulated in the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) bill which has been introduced to both houses of Congress by bipartisan groups during the current legislative session (S. 350 and H.R. 708). The proposed legislation is modeled after an existing National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy and would require government agencies with research expenditures exceeding $100 million per year (such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, among others) to set up digital archives for publications resulting from their grants. Researchers would be required to post their manuscripts to the digital archive within six months of publication. There are reasonable exceptions to protect classified research and patentable discoveries.

Since 2008, a similar system has been in place at the NIH, the largest non-defense federal research funding agency in the country. PubMedCentral, the NIH’s public-access article repository, currently includes 2.6 million full text articles, and its maintenance only costs ~0.01 percent of the NIH’s budget. While we appreciate the role of publishers in the editing process and the potential impacts of open access on their revenue streams, evidence suggests that the selection of high-quality work can still be maintained under open access policies. In fact, the NIH policy only had marginal impacts on the publishing industry because major research institutions and companies are unwilling to endure the embargo period between formal publication and inclusion in an open access database. For example, the Economist reported that, in 2011, Elsevier (a large publisher of scientific research) enjoyed a healthy profit margin of 37 percent.

In response to a We the People petition that reflects growing public support, the Obama Administration has recently issued an executive order to implement open access to research funded by the largest (in terms of research expenditure) federal agencies. While the President’s support is encouraging, an executive order generally lacks the longevity of federal law. It is therefore critical to continue our efforts to incorporate open access policies into the law.

Many groups have pushed for adopting this type of policy universally across all federal research grant agencies. MIT’s Graduate Student Council (GSC) as well as a larger umbrella organization of graduate students, the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), have persistently lobbied Congress to adopt such policies. To our knowledge, we are the only student groups advocating for open access in Washington.

If you support improving the nation’s access to federally-funded research, then we strongly encourage you not only to contact your local and home representatives in Congress, but to join us in discussing how these policies affect you and your communities and how you can contribute to making open access the law of the land.

Daniel Day G and Arolyn Conwill G are members of the Legislative Action Subcommittee of the GSC. They can be reached at gsc-lasc@mit.edu.

\'2011 almost 5 years ago

This is a lovely ideal, but the author has failed to incorporate a full analysis of the financial issues here. Unless the taxpayers want to pay for the open access, this proposition cannot be financially supported. Someone, somewhere, has to pay for the publication of articles and maintenance of journals, along with whatever other costs are associated with publishing. Open access is currently very costly to authors - many of whom are academics and, well, not the richest in the world. Currently, some journals have the option of charging the author approx $3K to make his/her article open access. An author can submit it to the journal for free but her/his article will not be open access. Other journals which are entirely open access charge a $3K for all accepted submissions, to cover the open access fee. I (and I think other reasonable folks too) would much rather pay $5-30 dollars to view an article then have to pay $3K every time I want to submit a research paper of my own.

Moreover, isn't a portion of the GIB, derived from students' tuition, at these institutions going towards subscribing to these journals?? If all journals become open access, what will MIT and other institutions do with that portion of tuition (I doubt refund it to the students).

So, if the viewer of the article (singly or as an institution) and the researcher are not going to pay for open access fees, then the taxpayer must. And in today's world, where sequestration is laying off 1 million federal workers, air traffic control towers are being shut down, TSA is relaxing its standards, Customs and Border Inspections are being negatively impacted, fewer and fewer $$ are out there available in grant-form for scientists to conduct important medical research... I would think that open access should be low on the country's list of priorities.

Jonathan Abbott almost 5 years ago

Thank you for this excellent editorial. I reached out to Senator Carper as S. 350 currently sits in the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

In response to the first comment, I would like to suggest that the current money that goes towards paying for subscriptions go to paying for proper editing. In the end, the same amount of "proofreading" has to happen so the cost should be about the same. I feel that the "$5-30 dollars to view an article" misses out that subscriptions to journals can run $3000. That makes the case for "paying" for revision reasonable. And I ask why should taxer payer money be used to fund research that isn't freely and publically accessible?

With an acceptable database (of like pdf/text/picture/video files that are not that costly to store) we can let Google and other organizations compete to index the information for us. I would suggest that this appears to be a great investment for whatever it costs.