The DOE’s public access policy sells out the public

Yesterday the Department of Energy became one of the first federal agencies to announce its plan to comply with a 2013 White Houses directive ordering federal agencies to provide the public with access to the results of research that they fund.

Here are the main features:

  • DOE will host a centralized database of metadata (title, authors)
  • The full-text of the articles will be made available on publisher websites, primarily through their CHORUS system
  • Articles will be made available within 12 months of publication

Although it may not seem like it at first glance, this is a terrible turn for public access. Yes, this policy will make a good number of publications freely available, and that is a step forward. But the choice to go with the “link to publisher website” model being pushed by publishers, instead of the centralized database model already successfully used by the NIH, is a disaster.

Most importantly, the DOE has bought into the ridiculous notion that publishers should own the results of federally funded research, and that the interest of the publishers in maintaining control of the content they publish trumps the public interest in making this content freely available and free to use.

PAGES does not include, as far as I can tell, the ability to do full-text searches. Because access will be provided by publishers and not the DOE itself, the process of getting and reading articles will likely be cumbersome. But the clearest evidence that the DOE cares more about publishers than the public is found in their attitude towards bulk-downloading of the freely-available content (see page 6 of the formal policy announcement):

The distributed nature of PAGES’ full-text content inherently makes unauthorized mass downloading and redistribution more difficult. For the limited full-text content it hosts publicly, OSTI will enforce a download limit and post appropriate fair use policies.

Note that not only does this policy prevent the perfectly reasonable action of downloading and reusing content produced by US taxpayer dollars, the DOE is celebrating the fact that they have made this impossible. This is completely unacceptable.

By any reasonable standard the product of government-funded research should belong to the public. And indeed, it DOES belong to the public, until the moment that authors assign their copyright over to journals. All the DOE has to do is forbid their authors from assigning copyright to publishers and instead place them in the public domain. This would not only ensure public access, but would also enable researchers and companies access to the full contents to develop new and interesting ways to use the results of publicly-funded research.

That the DOE eschewed this path in favor of reifying publisher ownership and control of government-funded literature is unforgivable.

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