Media reports look favorably on new White House open-access directive
Discord and questions remain, however, in science publishing's long internet-age transition.
February 27, 2013Published: February 27, 2013
By Steven T. Corneliussen
On 22 February, the Obama administration announced a new policy seeking to expand free public access to scientific papers and data that convey results from taxpayer-funded research. Media outlets reporting that development in the open-access issue have generally emphasized pleased acceptance from organizations and public figures on all sides. But controversy persists.
Here's the White House's summary:
The Obama Administration is committed to the proposition that citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for. That's why, in a policy memorandum released today, OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy] Director John Holdren has directed Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication and requiring researchers to better account for and manage the digital data resulting from federally funded scientific research. OSTP has been looking into this issue for some time, soliciting broad public input on multiple occasions and convening an interagency working group to develop a policy. The final policy reflects substantial inputs from scientists and scientific organizations, publishers, members of Congress, and other members of the public—over 65 thousand of whom recently signed a We the People petition asking for expanded public access to the results of taxpayer-funded research.
Besides that petition, the policy announcement also follows the 14 February filing of an open-access bill in Congress called FASTR, for "fair access to science and technology research." At Nature, Richard Van Noorden's blog posting "Fourth time lucky for US open-access bill?" reported that it would mandate a delay period of only six months, rather than the White House's full year. Van Noorden recalled that similar bills failed in 2006, 2009, and 2012, but now he sees "a different political climate, with agencies around the world pushing more strongly for public access than ever before."
Van Noorden's 28 February Nature article on the new federal policy describes part of that climate:
Agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy have been laying the groundwork with publishers for the past 18 months, notes Fred Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics, a publisher based in College Park, Maryland.... Agencies might model their plans on the NIH [National Institutes of Health] approach, in which a government-funded repository, PubMed Central, is used to house the free research.... But Dylla suggests that the full text of papers could reside on publishers' websites, with agencies just providing links. [Holdren's policy memorandum] specifically encourages public–private collaborations, asks agencies not to duplicate existing mechanisms and requests that resources be found from existing budgets. These are hints, Dylla says, that the OSTP does not want to extend the PubMed Central approach. Some publishers resent that repository, which they see as deflecting attention from their own web pages.
At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard offers an article under the headline "White House delivers new open-access policy that has activists cheering." Like other observers, she makes a point of quoting the descriptor that the Association of Research Libraries chose for the new policy: "historic."
Howard makes clear that publishers seem generally happy too. She quotes, for example, an Association of American Publishers statement praising the policy for outlining "a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies." She also quotes Holdren: "We wanted to strike the balance between the extraordinary public benefit of increasing public access to the results of federally funded scientific research and the need to ensure that the valuable contributions that the scientific publishing industry provides are not lost."
At the Guardian, the open-access story's headline illustrates two tendencies seen in the media coverage: imprecision on the distinction between raw research results and scientific publishing's finished products, and the invoking of the open-access-related case of the late Aaron Swartz. That headline says, "Obama White House expands access to federally funded research: Campaigners herald boost for accessibility of scientific information and say Aaron Swartz case gave momentum." The Washington Post's opening paragraph does the same: "The White House moved Friday to make nearly all federally funded research freely available to the public, the latest advance in a long-running battle over access to research that exploded into view last month after the suicide of free-information activist Aaron Swartz."
Obviously some of the conflation of research results with publishing's products simply stems from a sort of shorthand. After all, value-added or not, professionally peer-reviewed, edited, produced, and archived papers do, in a loose sense, constitute "the research." Nobody wants to force reporters and headline writers to become wordily legalistic. Nevertheless, because the framing matters, it seems worth pointing out the conflation's ubiquity. Here are examples:
* Jennifer Howard's opening focus on "public access to federally financed research."
* The Post's piece's prominently placed phrase "long-running battle over access to research."
* Yahoo's Reuters piece's prominently placed phrase "scholarly articles and other materials produced at taxpayers' expense."
* A New York Times article's first line: "If you paid for it, you should be able to read it."
* That 28 February Nature article's headline: "US science to be open to all: Government mandates that taxpayer-funded research be freely available within 12 months."
* An Inside Higher Ed article's first line: "New taxpayer-funded research must be made available to the public free of charge within a year of its publication."
* A press release from the Association of Research Libraries about a "policy memorandum that opens up access to the results of publicly funded research."
* John Timmer's Ars Technica headline "Obama administration backs open access to all federal research."
* A Science magazine online posting's phrase "scientific papers funded with taxpayer dollars."
In some cases, journalists appear to avoid the conflation. At the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog, Jacob Gershman couldn't resist including an image to illustrate the word geek for his posting "Obama directive is good news for science geeks," but he clearly separates "scholarly articles" from "the results of U.S.-funded research." Timmer at Ars Technica—despite what's cited above—notes that "preservation of data and sharing it in a usable form aren't always cheap." A Nature news blog posting distinguished "publications" from "taxpayer-funded research." SpaceRef endorsed publishers' importance and "the value of journal subscriptions for the maintenance of quality editing and peer review." It also quoted Chris Biemesderfer, director of publishing at the American Astronomical Society, which began opening access to its journals in the 1990s, and which makes its online journals available for free to US public libraries with no delay period. Biemesderfer said, "If the public is truly to benefit from the research they're paying for, they must have access to articles that have been fully subjected to all the quality assurances that guarantee good scholarship."
As to the free-information activism in the open-access issue, some of the coverage emphasizes an us-versus-them dimension—literally so, in the case of the headline on the New York Times's editorial: "We paid for the research, so let's see it." See the research? Or see scientific publishing's value-added products reporting on the research? The editors quote Holdren: Americans "deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for." But the editors omit all evidence of another policy principle stipulated in Holdren's White House memorandum: "[P]ublishers provide valuable services...essential for ensuring the high quality and integrity of many scholarly publications. It is critical that these services continue."
Those services are outside the focus when the Post's article reports that academic publishers "enjoy" a "200-year-old stranglehold on scientific information." The services are also outside the focus when the Nature article reports that publishers "say that a year's delay is needed to maintain their revenue," and when Science's online posting reports that many "journals and scientific societies have resisted complete and immediate open access, arguing that it will destroy the revenue streams they need to survive."
Scientific publishers have also come in for some outright bashing. Here's the ending chosen for the Post's report:
"Open access" has also become a rallying cry for activists trying to set information free. [Aaron] Swartz, 26, a prominent computer programmer, faced severe federal charges for allegedly downloading some 5 million academic articles from JSTOR, a pay-walled journal repository. Swartz died by suicide in January as a court date loomed.
The hacker group Anonymous then broke into MIT's computer network and promised to continue Swartz's crusade.
"The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations," the group wrote. "We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access."
The Post article also quotes Michael Eisen, the University of California, Berkeley, biologist and outspoken open-access advocate, concerning the new policy: "It's lame. It's a major sellout to publishers." And the Post links to an Eisen blog posting with a headline that calls the Association of American Publishers an unprintable name. The Nature piece quotes Eisen too: "They had an opportunity to do something dramatically important, and instead they recycled a 5-year-old policy and went to great lengths to say that embargoes are critical for maintaining the publishing industry."
Eisen himself goes further, in a blog posting cross-posted at the Berkeley Blog under the headline "No celebrations here: Why the White House public-access policy sucks." He charges that publishers "have established their ability to corrupt policy making, and will continue to exploit it." He predicts "that as these policies are implemented in different agencies, that they will be heavily tilted towards what the publishers want," that there "will be no central archives–just links out to publishers websites," and that "there will be pressure to increase–not decrease–embargo periods." He charges that our "government let us down, allowing a dying, useless industry to dictate policy that serves to line their pockets at the expense of the public good."
The editors at Nature have complaints too, though not at all like Eisen's. In the UK, where Nature originates, the magazine's news article unsurprisingly noted that those "hoping that the [US] government would require papers to be free from the time of publication were disappointed" by the new policy. Nature's 28 February editorial details why. The new "delayed-access approach would have looked progressive five years ago," the editors say, but now "it looks as if a combination of financial constraints and a lack of firm resolve at the top of the US government is blocking movement towards the policy that ultimately benefits science the most: 'gold' open access, in which the published article is immediately freely available, paid for by a processing charge rather than by readers' subscriptions." The editors stipulate "that publishers add value to the published versions of research, and that this value should be paid for explicitly." They assert, though, that only "gold unambiguously achieves the objective of open access for taxpayer-funded research when it is published." They sum up this way: "As for Nature, we view the US position as a signal that in the longer term, for highly selective journals, fully funded gold open access is a scientific necessity."
Summing up the present media report, however, requires reverting to the main message: Most of the coverage emphasizes responses comparable in positive tone to the response of the American Institute of Physics. AIP declares that the new "directive aligns with the values of scholarly publishers in ensuring that the public and the entire research community have the widest possible access to the best scientific information, while recognizing the need for sustainable scholarly publishing business models." In the online comments at a Nature blog posting, even the open-access promoter Stevan Harnad called the directive "a wonderful step forward for the entire planet"—and Mike Taylor, a well-known and outspoken UK open-access promoter, called it "excellent news" for open access in America and "a significant net win for the world."
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.