Apr 102010
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The push to open up scientific knowledge to all looks set to go into overdrive.

Over the past decade, the accessibility offered by the Internet has transformed science publishing. Several efforts have already tried to harness the web’s power to make research papers available for free. Now two parallel efforts from the U.S. government could see almost all federally funded research made available in free, publicly accessible repositories.

Traditional science publishing relies on institutions and libraries buying subscriptions and site licences to academic journals. Some “open-access” publishers, such as the non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS), make papers free to readers immediately and try to cover the costs of peer review and publication by charging authors a fee. But author-pays business models are still in their infancy, and the papers they produce account for only a fraction of the literature.

The U.S. government and many other research funders are largely taking a different tack–one that can instantly make huge numbers of scientific articles publicly available after a certain delay. Increasingly, they are making it a condition of funding that when scientists publish in a peer-reviewed subscription journal they must place of copy of their paper in a free, publicly accessible database. Such archives, however, mostly contain the authors’ final version of the manuscript rather than the published, version of record available on the publisher’s website.

The argument that everyone should have free access to the fruits of taxpayer-funded research has proved popular with lawmakers keen to reap the benefits of investment in science. And distributing results as widely as possible is predicted to produce socioeconomic gains, such as helping doctors keep up with medical research.

“The notion of open government and open access has taken a firm hold,” says John Hawley, executive director of the American Society for Clinical Investigation in Ann Arbor, Mich. “If that means public-access mandates, so be it.”

Public access was boosted in late 2007, when Congress passed a bill making it compulsory for scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to deposit their papers in the agency’s PubMed Central archive within 12 months of publication.

The agency had introduced a voluntary policy in 2005, but the idea flopped when scientists showed little interest in depositing their articles. Since the measure became compulsory, submissions to PubMed Central and use of the archive have skyrocketed. PubMed Central now holds nearly 2 million articles, and on a typical weekday some 420,000 users between them download about 750,000 articles.

In recent years similar mandates have been imposed by research funders in other countries, including the Wellcome Trust–Britain’s largest research charity–all the UK government’s research councils and the European Research Council.

In the United States, two recent proposals could see a policy similar to that of the NIH soon cover most federally funded research. The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), a bill reintroduced in the Senate in June last year by Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), would apply to all research funded by federal agencies with annual research budgets of more than $100 million, with a few exceptions such as classified research. The House could consider the bill within months.

Meanwhile, a six-week public consultation on whether and how public-access policies might be implemented ended on January 21. Organized by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the consultation has sparked intense speculation that President Barack Obama might soon sign an executive order bringing a policy covering similar ground to the FRPAA into force. That order might also dispense with the $100-million budget cap, but, being an executive order, it would be more vulnerable than a federal law to being overturned by a future administration.

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