White House moves to increase public access to scientific research online

More federally funded research and data will be made freely available to the public online.

Today, the White House responded to a We The People e-petition that asked for free online access to taxpayer-funded research.

open-access-smallAs part of the response, John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, released a memorandum today directing agencies with “more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publically available free of charge within 12 months after original publication.”

The Obama administration has been considering access to federally funded scientific research for years, including a report to Congress in March 2012. The relevant e-petition, which had gathered more than 65,000 signatures, had gone unanswered since May of last year.

As Hayley Tsukayama notes in the Washington Post, the White House acknowledged the open access policies of the National Institutes of Health as a successful model for sharing research.

“This is a big win for researchers, taxpayers, and everyone who depends on research for new medicines, useful technologies, or effective public policies,” said Peter Suber, Director of the Public Knowledge Open Access Project, in a release. “Assuring public access to non-classified publicly-funded research is a long-standing interest of Public Knowledge, and we thank the Obama Administration for taking this significant step.”

Every federal agency covered by this memomorandum will eventually need to “ensure that the public can read, download, and analyze in digital form final peer-reviewed manuscripts or final published documents within a timeframe that is appropriate for each type of research conducted or sponsored by the agency.”

An open government success story?

From the day they were announced, one of the biggest question marks about We The People e-petitions has always been whether the administration would make policy changes or take public stances it had not before on a given issue.

While the memorandum and the potential outcomes from its release come with caveats, from a $100 million threshold to national security or economic competition, this answer from the director of the White House Office of Science Policy accompanied by a memorandum directing agencies to make a plan for public access to research is a substantive outcome.

While there are many reasons to be critical of some open government initiatives, it certainly appears that today, We The People were heard in the halls of government.

An earlier version of this post appears on the Radar Tumblr, including tweets regarding the policy change. Photo Credit: ajc1 on Flickr.

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  • floatingbones

    The science journals provide a vital function in scientific research; they are the literal gatekeepers for the standard of science. There are real costs for reviewing and refereeing papers. There is a necessary firewall between the researchers and the journals; having the researchers directly compensate the journals would be a fundamental conflict of interest. Mandating something to the researchers without addressing our centuries-old mechanisms for maintaining the standards of scientific research seems to be missing the point. At worst, this requirement on the researchers — but really on the journals — sounds like an unfunded mandate.

    At the same time, a one-year embargo on open access could work. Journals would still publish the papers; they would have exclusivity on the papers for 12 months. Is that window sufficient to maintain the value proposition for the scientific journals? I cannot say; I haven’t heard any commentary from the journal publishers yet.

    For the general public, I think a one-year embargo on public access is reasonable. It’s quite similar to the 28-day delay between the release of movie DVDs and their availability on Netflix and Redbox. It could even help the science: pertinent stories could have a resurgence when the papers become publicly available. I think about Sir James Lighthill’s “The recently recognized failure of predictability in Newtonian dynamics”, a tremendous paper published in 1986 that very simple systems (e.g., a swing in a park) can easily be driven to chaotic behavior. IMHO, it’s a crime that this paper still lurks behind a paywall.

    One requirement: the open-access version of the papers should be exactly the same as the papers published 12 months earlier in science journals. Hollywood is creating mangled versions of their DVDs for Netflix/Redbox that don’t contain deleted scenes or other features from the retail product. I think that Hollywood’s strategy of mangling their own product is stuck on stupid, but that is their choice. Fortunately, we can — and should — require that science papers be released intact after the embargo.

    • digiphile

      Thank you for the comment! Great to meet you on Twitter, too.