Protect public access to taxpayer funded research

I have an op-ed out today in the New York Times prompted by a new effort by publishers to restrict public access to the results of publicly-funded scientific research. If you’re as incensed by this as I am, you have several important opportunities to weigh in.

Help protect the NIH’s Public Access Policy in Congress

If you live in the US, write to your representative and urge them to oppose the awful Research Works Act (HR 3699), especially if they sit on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Urge scientific societies and university presses to quit the Association of American Publishers

It isn’t all that surprising that big commercial publishers like Elsevier would support the Research Works Act in an effort to maintain a system of scientific publishing has been incredibly lucrative for them.

But it is disheartening to see just how many scientific societies and university presses are members of the Association of American Publishers that has gleefully backed this bill (and likely played a role in writing it).

Many societies who are members of AAP have taken important steps towards open access in recent years. My own society, the Genetic Society of America, for example, launched its own open access journal in 2011. If you are a member of one of these forward thinking societies, you should demand that your membership dues no longer support efforts to roll back open access, and pressure the society to quit the AAP.

Unfortunately, many other societies (the AAAS, publisher of Science, and the American Physiological Society, and the Ecological Society of America come to mind) have sacrificed their principles in the name of profits from their journals, and have expressed opposition to the NIH Public Access Policy. If you are a member of one of these societies you should quit until they remember that they exist to serve the interests of the scientific community and public, not to oppose them.

Comment (by January 12th!) on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s request for information on public access

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 contains language authorizing the OSTP to develop policies that assure widespread public access to and long-term stewardship of the results of federally funded unclassified research. Many publishers and others have already weighed in offering various bad ideas that would undermine, rather than advance, public access. The more scientists, students, teachers, caregivers and other members of the public who weigh in on the side of advancing open access, rather than retreating from it, the better.

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  1. Posted January 11, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    It would be great if there was a single unified focal point for all criticism of the RWA, analogous to the OSTP RFI. Do you know of a place where non-USA citizens can send complaints and arguments, other than indirectly via professional science memberships?

  2. John in NC
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the idea that “if taxpayers pay for it, then taxpayers should own it,” as paraphrased in the NYT op-ed letter: Would this also be true for all military equipment, starting today? I don’t think I want my neighbors toying with bunker bombs. What about information collected by the IRS — should taxpayers ‘own’ that? Perhaps, but that would entail the nullification of basic privacy laws grounded in the U.S. Constitution. What about data on individuals that is collected in publicly-funded drug trials — should that be made public? I hope not.

    No. The H5N1 research demonstrates how easy it is for a virus to go airborne. We need this information to better prepare for a potential outbreak. What we don’t need is another instruction manual on how to make it actually happen. I’m very happy, as a citizen, to pay for that research without being privy to all its details.

    • Michael Eisen
      Posted January 11, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      John. These are obviously not equivalent.

      There is a huge difference between the government collecting and/or generating information and then choosing not to release it to protect privacy or public safety, and the government paying to generate information that is meant to be shared openly, and instead giving it to a private entity who restrict access to the public solely for their own gain.

      Furthermore, the taxpayers DO own military equipment through their military. The appropriate metaphor would be if the US military spent $100 billion dollars to purchase a new fleet of fighter aircraft, and then had a private company paint them, and, instead of just paying the painters for the service they provided, they gave the aircraft to the painters and then rented them back for $25 billion a year.

  3. John in NC
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Michael, When I read your article, I blithely assumed that there was an indirect connection to the H5N1 ‘censorship’ case, which has been much in the news lately. I was wrong. I do indeed support the idea of open access to ordinary research, and I think the issue goes well beyond the present NIH/AAAS kerfuffle and should include, for example, all PhD dissertations for which public money has been spent — an issue which some writers and some publishers are now vying to control. But rather than making a “public pays therefore public owns” argument (which I don’t think holds water), I would prefer to see a way of ensuring that publication costs are wrapped into the cost of research, rather than passed on to individual consumers, which as you imply puts a huge damper on progress. As it stands, publication is invariably treated as an afterthought, something to be paid for by someone else when the research is finished. The same holds for the process of review, which in my field is always provided gratis by colleagues at other institutions. Funding institutions (including universities) need to step up and see their projects through to the true end, which means equitable (i.e., not capriciously market-driven) reimbursement, and of course open access to most publications.

    • Michael Eisen
      Posted January 12, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      We completely agree. Publication – and universal access to publications – is an integral part of the research process and needs to be treated, and funded, as such.

  4. Ben
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Please help us organize the fight to retain public access by joining and sharing our Facebook community:

    We are students and postdocs in Carolyn Maloney’s district, which encompasses Weill-Cornell, Memorial Sloan-Ketting Cancer Center, Rockefeller University, NYU Medical Center, and Mt. Sinai Medical School. Help us spread the word to pressure her to kill the bill.

  5. Eric Foss
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Very nice article! I think this principle should apply to all sorts of issues in which that small fraction of publicly funded research that ends up being valuable financially is allowed to get skimmed off for private profit. For example, why should the government pay for a slew of research programs aimed at drug discovery and then allow Bristol Myers Squibb to jump in and pick off taxol once it looks promising? A tax payer pays first for the research and then pays through the nose for taxol once she gets breast cancer. I’m not advocating no privatization of production from publicly funded research but instead that the return to government should be more in line with government investment rather than full scale privatization of profit and socialization of risk. Anyway, thanks for a great article!

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