How President Obama could really lead on open access

[The Washington Post ran a nice op-ed today from two student leaders linked to the recent public access petition campaign. I had submitted one that urges the administration to take a more agressive stance, which I am posting here.]

Last weekend, a “We the People” petition calling on the Obama administration to provide free access to the results of taxpayer-sponsored research passed the 25,000 signature threshold that earns a White House response.

The petition advocates an extension to all government agencies of a policy already in place at the National Institutes of Health that requires papers arising from research they fund to be made available within a year of publication. But truly unleashing the potential of information technology to convey new discoveries to the public and accelerate the rate at which they are made will require bolder action from the President.

People new to this issue will rightly ask why, in this era of Internet-enabled open government, the results of federally funded research are not automatically made available to the public already. The answer is that most research journals still charge the same hefty subscription fees for electronic access they did for printed copies, which effectively  limits access  to those affiliated with large universities and other institutions that can afford them.

The NIH public access policy was carefully crafted to avoid challenging this status quo. Rather than requiring that newly published works be made available immediately, it permits a delay of up to one year, giving journals a period of exclusivity during which would-be readers must still pay for access. The public, and many researchers, are thus cut off from the most recent – and important – discoveries.

Rather than take the more cautious step suggested by the petition, President Obama should address this critical flaw by crafting a public access policy for all federal agencies with these features:

First, all federal research grants should come with an unambiguous requirement that any papers arising from the funded work should be made immediately freely available. Grants already come with a dizzying array of requirements for grantees – this would be a painless new one.

Second, federal agencies should stop channeling billions of dollars to libraries to cover subscription costs, and use the money to foster alternative business models. Many American businesses would salivate at the prospect of receiving billions of dollars to publish the few hundred thousand papers a year arising from government funded research.

Finally, the National Library of Medicine should be expanded into a National Library of Science, Medicine and Technology, and charged not only with making the works of government funded research available to the public, but also with helping researchers and entrepreneurs develop new tools for navigating and mining the entire scientific literature in ways that will speed the research process itself.

Few would object to these steps. Many in the public would rejoice at having unfettered access to the research their tax dollars paid to create. Scientists would welcome the opportunity for their work to be seen as widely and as quickly as possible. Publishers would value the clarity of knowing that there was a stable source of revenue for their businesses. And entrepreneurs would salivate at the prospect of having a digital repository of scientific knowledge as the foundation for a new wave of innovation.

A similar proposal was put forward in 1999 by former NIH Director Harold Varmus. Unfortunately, neither the scientific community nor the business community were ready for what, at that time, seemed like a radical transformation. But a lot has changed in the ensuing years, and, as the petition demonstrates, keeping publicly funded research hidden from public view is now the radical act.

Scientific and medical research in the United States is one of the great public endeavors of all time. President Obama has the opportunity to complete the movement to make its output one of the great public resources.

Michael B. Eisen, Ph.D. is an associate professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley and co-founder of the Public Library of Science, a San Francisco based non-profit publisher of open access scientific journals.

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