Why "We the People" should support open access

Guest blog post by Dr Bill (Craig) Hooker, Associate Editor of BMC Research Notes and open science enthusiast, and strong supporter of the access2research initiative

Sign the Petition!

I don’t suppose that readers of a BioMed Central website need a long introduction to open access, so I’ll get right to the point: there’s a “We The People” petition active until June 19th, petitioning the Obama administration to provide public access to publicly funded research:

We petition the Obama administration to:
Require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research
We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research, and education. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research. The highly successful Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health proves that this can be done without disrupting the research process, and we urge President Obama to act now to implement open access policies for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.

You should go sign it, and then get all your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, enemies and random people on the street to sign it.

Frequently asked questions
For those who want a little more context, here are a few of the questions that have come up repeatedly during the week that the petition has been live.

Do you have to be a US citizen to sign?
No, you don’t. You need only be 13 years of age and in possession of a valid email address. This is particularly fitting for the public access petition, because science is a global enterprise in which age is no barrier to participation.

Does it stop gathering signatures at 25,000?
No – and the more signatures gathered, the better. See also “why now”, below: the point is to make a splash, to get the attention of policy makers. 

Why now? What’s the impetus for this?
In a word, momentum. Or, if you prefer, realpolitik. These are exciting times for open access. Recently, mathematicians were joined by other scholars in the Cost of Knowledge boycott, which was coordinated in response to the Research Works Act (RWA). We have learned that not even Harvard can keep up with the rising costs of access to the subscription literature; other universities are pushing back against price increases and even cancelling subscriptions; editors are resigning from toll-access editorial boards, and there has been an unusual amount of mainstream media coverage of the debate. There could be another RWA in the future, supported by well-funded lobbyists. The open access lobby can’t outspend, but we can go one better: we can take it to the people. The time is clearly ripe to demonstrate to the Obama administration, as they sort through priorities in the run-up to an election, that open access matters to the public. This was the insight that led to the petition; there is some context from the petition founders here, and a personal comment from one of the founders, John Wilbanks.

How does this work with military data and other information of national security importance?
The petition aims only at material that has already been published: information that anyone can have today. Decisions about whether or not to publish (e.g. because of national security concerns) are made before the policy contemplated by the petition ever takes effect, so the petition assuredly isn’t calling for the release of sensitive information.

How does this work with patenting?
As with military information, the petition aims only at information that researchers elect to publish – it has no effect on how or why they make that choice, so no one is going to lose a commercial opportunity because of the public access policy.

Wait, the NIH already has a public access policy, it says so right there in the petition what research is this aimed at?
The US government funds a lot of research that isn’t covered by the NIH! Taking only those agencies with R&D budgets in excess of $100 million, that includes:
•    Department of Agriculture
•    Department of Commerce
•    Department of Defense
•    Department of Education
•    Department of Energy
•    Department of Health and Human Services (of which NIH is part)
•    Department of Homeland Security
•    Department of Transportation
•    Environmental Protection Agency
•    National Aeronautics and Space Administration
•    National Science Foundation

I’m not a scientist why do I care about this?
Firstly, because you want value for your money as a taxpayer. The costs of publishing are part of the costs of research, and the open access model has been shown to provide a better return on investment for funders of research than the subscription model. Taxpayers should be able to read research they paid for in the first place, and scientists who spent those taxpayer dollars carrying out the research should have access to the information they need to do their jobs – the research literature. Secondly, because you may not make a living out of science, that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do science, or read up on science relevant to your interests. Citizen science is rapidly growing: you can be a part of hundreds of research projects. Student scientists are frequently in the news. Patients and patient advocates are increasingly seeking to be genuine partners with physicians in making healthcare decisions – for which they need access to information.  It’s
not hard to see why PatientsLikeMe and e-Patients.net have both thrown their weight behind the petition.

This isn’t really open access, sensu Berlin/Bethesda/Budapest, is it?
No, it’s public access, which isn’t quite the same thing. It’s not free of “most…restrictions”, being particularly inadequate for reuse such as text or data mining.

But public access is important, for all the reasons mentioned above. This petition aims to wind the policy ratchet one step further, making future advances more likely and making it more difficult for those with vested interests to roll back existing gains. It’s a good step towards real, full, 100% open access.

Bill Hooker

Image credit: Mike McCarthy of https://www.drawnalong.com on behalf of SPARC, available under CC-BY

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