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.
In a memo, White House science adviser John P. Holdren directed agency leaders to develop rules for releasing federally backed research within a year of publication in scientific or technical journals.
“These policies will accelerate scientific breakthroughs and innovation, promote entrepreneurship, and enhance economic growth and job creation,” Holdren wrote.
The directive affects agencies funding at least $100 million in research annually, including the National Science Foundation and the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, and Health and Human Services. Agencies have six months to develop plans, which will then be reviewed by the White House before launch.
Articles can be stored in agency computers or other digital repositories as long as they can be “publicly accessible to search, retrieve, and analyze,” Holdren wrote. He encouraged agencies to coordinate their plans.
Currently, much taxpayer-funded research is published in academic journals that cost up to $20,000 a year. Reading individual articles typically runs $30 or more.
Holdren on Friday also responded to an open-access petition that garnered 65,000 signatures, writing, “this research was funded by taxpayer dollars. Americans should have easy access to the results.”
A teenage scientist from Glen Burnie, Jack Andraka, said he relied on open-access articles to develop a five-minute, $3 test for pancreatic cancer. The project earned him first place and $75,000 in last year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
“I kept running into these paywalls where articles cost $30,” said Andraka. He then searched for similar, but freely available, information. “Open access was absolutely critical. I couldn’t have done my project without it.”
The new policy traverses a middle ground between the demands of advocates for immediate free access to research and the pecuniary interests of the $21 billion academic publishing sector. It appeared to placate large segments of both sides.
The Association of American Publishers, which has fought open-access proposals in Congress, called the policy a “fair path.” A coalition of academic libraries fed up with high journal prices also praised the plan.
“I think it’s a huge step in the right direction,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which represents libraries.
Some open-access advocates, meanwhile, took issue with the policy’s one-year waiting period.
“It’s lame,” said Michael Eisen, a University of California, Berkeley, biologist and a vocal proponent of immediate free access to research papers. “It’s a major sellout to publishers.”
Holdren’s memo explicitly recognizes “that publishers provide valuable services,” such as coordinating the review of submitted articles by scientific peers. So-called peer review is a cornerstone of the scientific process. “It is critical that these services continue to be made available,” Holdren wrote.
For three years, Congress has wrestled with the issue but has passed no legislation. A bipartisan bill introduced last week, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, would force the public release of journal articles within six months of publication. The publishing industry vehemently opposes the bill. In 2011, a bill backed by academic publishing powerhouse Elsevier aimed to quash open access to scientific articles; it died after an organized outcry.
Already, the nation’s largest funder of research, the National Institutes of Health, makes available papers arising from research it funds within a year of publication. A 2007 law mandated that move. Some 40 percent of the users of the NIH database PubMed are non-academics, according to an NIH report.
The huge and growing availability of full-text medical and biology papers isn’t just a consequence of the NIH law, however. Most of the papers are ones that journals have voluntarily offered to provide without charge and often include studies published many years ago.
“What the White House announced is already happening in biomedicine,” said Donald Lindberg, the physician who heads the National Library of Medicine, the branch of NIH that operates PubMed.
Lindberg added, however, that an increasing amount of research is being paid for by pharmaceutical and biotech companies, which are not subject to the open access rules. Less than 20 percent of the clinical trials of new drugs and devices are paid for by the federal government.
In other federal agencies sponsoring research, the new directive is likely to make more of a difference.