Open access gains momentum in Washington

Posted April 12th, 2013 by Katharine Dunn

White House takes action to increase access to the results of federally funded scientific research

When MIT faculty adopted an open access (OA) policy for their scholarly articles in March 2009, they expressed a strong philosophical commitment to disseminating “the fruits of their research and scholarship” as widely as possible. The MIT Libraries are paying close attention to recent events in Washington that have the potential to expand this commitment to include a significant percentage of all federally funded research in the United States.

On February 22, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a directive asking each federal agency with over $100 million in annual research and development expenditures to develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research they fund. Agencies have six months to come up with policies that would make both articles and data openly available to the public, consistent with a set of objectives set out in the memorandum. The OSTP has been evaluating the need for more open access to federally funded research for several years; in 2010 and 2012 it collected public comments, including those from MIT.

Eight days earlier, on February 14, bipartisan lawmakers in both houses of Congress introduced a bill called the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which would provide open access to work funded by US government agencies that spend at least $100 million a year on research. FASTR is a stronger version of an earlier bill that failed to make it out of committee. It asks that authors make their peer-reviewed manuscripts available to OA repositories within six months of publication; that agencies devise common deposit procedures (thus making the law easier to comply with); and that articles are deposited in a format and under terms that allow them to be widely reused and analyzed.

“By next year, I hope we can say: Don’t give candy; give knowledge,” writes Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, in his analysis of the Valentine’s Day bill.

Suber calls the executive and legislative strategies complementary. The directive alone isn’t law, which means the next president could rescind it. As for FASTR, it’s unclear whether it will be adopted and how the sequester — the across-the-board budget cuts to federal agencies — will affect it.

“The legislative situation in Washington is problematic due to the budget impasse,” says Ann Wolpert, director of MIT Libraries. “But open access advocacy groups continue to keep pressure on the appropriate committees of Congress.”

In late February, Wolpert published a serendipitously timed article in the New England Journal of Medicine called “For the Sake of Inquiry and Knowledge — The Inevitability of Open Access.” The article was one of four opinion pieces on the pros and cons of OA that the journal commissioned last fall. In it Wolpert explores the “powerful motivations” underlying open access, including the fact that scholarly authors write for impact, not royalties, that much of research is taxpayer funded, and that journal publishers have often disproportionally raised their subscription prices. The Internet, of course, was the disruption to the long-running, intricate scholarly publishing system that has enabled open access.

“For all its known flaws, no one wants to destroy peer-reviewed publication,” Wolpert writes. “But the nonpublisher stakeholders in the scholarly communication system can no longer support the prices and access constraints desired by traditional publishers.”

Because of the diversity of research culture, Wolpert writes, we should expect open access to come in fits and starts depending on the discipline and on new communication tools that will “flourish or perish.”

For now, the White House directive provides a welcome push. “I’m confident the library community and academia will be active during this time in support of plans that make sense from the perspective of research universities and their libraries,” Wolpert says, adding that the MIT Faculty Open Access Working Group of the Committee on the Library System has both FASTR and the directive on its upcoming agenda.

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