Is it fair for the government to fund scientific research, only to have that research locked up in a US$300 academic journal? Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Lieberman (D-CT) don't think so, and they've got a plan to change the current system. That plan is the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 (PDF), a new bit of legislation making its way through the senate. The bill mandates that most federally funded research be freely published online after publication in an academic journal.
The bill contains a few caveats, though: such publication won’t take place until at least six months after an article appears in a journal, and it won’t necessarily be an exact copy of the journal article. If the publisher refuses to allow for a copy from the journal, the author’s own copy of the paper’s final version will be used instead....
It doesn't take a college graduate to imagine that journal publishers don't like the idea. Brian Crawford, who chairs the Professional Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (that must be one wide business card), says of the plan:
Mandating that journal articles be freely available on government Web sites so soon after their publication will be a powerful disincentive for publishers to continue these substantial investments.
Not surprisingly, the plan is quite a bit more popular with universities and libraries, who now pay journal subscription fees that sometimes border on the obscene....
[T]his is an issue near and dear to us [as grad students] --and we are of two minds about it. On the one hand, it hardly seems right for the government to fund research, then to pay a private company for access to that research (which is what happens at most public universities). There’s an argument to be made that if taxpayers foot the bill, they should have access to the product. On the other hand, the journals do provide some valuable services. One of their most important functions is to coordinate the peer review process, one of the cornerstones of contemporary academic research. But they're also useful because they sort information; one soon learns what to expect from, say, English Literary History. By throwing all of their research into a big pile, government-run web sites might make it difficult to find articles of interest and value. And the argument about "the government paid, so it should be free!" breaks down when we consider analogous situations. Just because your local government funded that new baseball stadium, for instance, doesn't mean they're going to give you free tickets-or even a discount. It's also worth pointing out that federal funding often doesn't cover the entire cost of the research, and it certainly doesn't pay the journal's real editorial and printing expenses.
The bill (FRPAA) doesn't impose a minimum six month embargo on the OA edition. On the contrary, it says that six months is the maximum embargo.
The bill would not replace peer-reviewed journals or steer publicly-funded research away from them. On the contrary, the bill only applies to articles that have been published in peer-reviewed journals.
These articles will still be discoverable through the usual channels (the journals themselves, standard indices in different fields). But the OA editions will also be discoverable in new and useful ways. For example, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Scirus are all indexing the OA repositories where these articles will be on deposit, and so will the OAI harvesters like OAIster. Discoverability will be considerably better, not worse, than it is now.
The publicly-funded baseball stadium isn't a good analogy to publicly-funded scientific research. The stadium is rivalrous --use by some excludes use by others. But knowledge is non-rivalrous. It can be shared with everyone without diminishing use, possession, or consumption by anyone. Digital texts are non-rivalrous for the same reason. There is a huge difference, therefore, between giving taxpayers free access to a publicly-subsidized building with finite capacity and giving taxpayers free access to publicly-subsidized knowledge.
For my response to Brian Crawford and the AAP's criticism of bill, see the 10-point rebuttal I posted yesterday.
For an assessment of the bill's chances of passing, see my article on it in the May issue of SOAN.
Peter Suber at 5/11/2006 11:34:00 AM.
The open access movement:
Putting peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly literature
on the internet. Making it available free of charge and
free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.
Removing the barriers to serious research.