White House Responds (Finally) to Research Access Petition with a Yes

Administration will support making taxpayer-funded academic papers available to everybody a year after publication


Eventually …
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Nine months ago open access advocates took to the White House's "We the People" petition site to ask the government to make taxpayer-funded academic research freely available to the public. They reached threshold for a response (25,000 signatures at the time) in June, but there had been no response, until now.

Now, a little over a month after Aaron Swartz committed suicide rather than face federal imprisonment over charges related to his efforts to download and make accessible academic research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the White House has responded affirmatively. John Holdren, President Barack Obama's assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (imagine what his business card must look like) posted the administraton's position:

The Obama Administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for. As you may know, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has been looking into this issue for some time and has reached out to the public on two occasions for input on the question of how best to achieve this goal of democratizing the results of federally-funded research. Your petition has been important to our discussions of this issue.

The logic behind enhanced public access is plain. We know that scientific research supported by the Federal Government spurs scientific breakthroughs and economic advances when research results are made available to innovators. Policies that mobilize these intellectual assets for re-use through broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth. That's why the Obama Administration is committed to ensuring that the results of federally-funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community.

Moreover, this research was funded by taxpayer dollars. Americans should have easy access to the results of research they help support.

We can argue about whether we actually need the federal government to subsidize the research (particularly given how much the federal government already heavily subsidizes the salaries of college faculties via student financial aid), but that's another issue.

Holdren is going to attempt to implement a policy similar to the approach by the National Institute of Health (NIH). The NIH requires research that they've funded to become publicly accessible for free online after a year of publication. The delay allows the publishing companies time to sell access and recoup the costs they bear in organizing peer review and earn a profit. Holdren's plan is to extend this model to any federal agency that spends more than $100 million a year in research and development.

At the same time as the White House is responding, Congress is considering legislation as well. As Richard Van Noorden noted over at Nature's blog, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives introduced legislation earlier this month to open up access to taxpayer-funded research papers six months after publication. This will be the fourth attempt by Congress members to pass legislation to open access to research.  

I wrote about efforts to open access to academic research last June. Read about it here.