Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

No celebrations here: Why the White House public-access policy sucks

By Michael Eisen

I am taking a lot of flak from my friends in the open access community about my sour response to the White House’s statement on public access to papers arising from federally-funded scientific research.

While virtually everyone in the open access movement is calling for “celebration” of this “landmark” event, I see a huge missed opportunity that will ultimately be viewed as a major setback for open access. Since I seem to be the only person with this point of view, I feel I should explain why.

The statement was nominally triggered by a petition posted on the White House’s “We the People” page last May calling for greater access to the results of federally funded research, pointing to the successful NIH public access policy as a model for other agencies.

Under this new White House directive, all federal agencies with R&D budgets in excess of $100,000,000 will have to develop their own public access policies that will “ensure the public can read, download, and analyze in digital form” published works arising from federally-funded research within 12 months of publication.

There is no doubt this is a good thing. Once the new policies are implemented everyone will have access to the full range outputs of federally funded research. That is better than what is available today. So why aren’t I dancing in the streets?

When the NIH announced its public access policy in 2008, this truly was a landmark event. The biggest funder of non-classified scientific research in the world (The NIH research budget is around $30b/year) was acting to ensure public access to the entire body of its funded works. The policy was imperfect – it allowed a 12 months embargo, and had no provisions for reuse of the works. But this was big news – the instantiation of a new right – the right of the public to access the results of taxpayer funded research.

And the NIH policy has been very successful. The research community has accepted the mandate with nary a hitch - over 80% of NIH funded works end up in PubMed Central, the NIH’s open archive of scientific journal articles – and the database is heavily accessed by both researchers and the public.

It should have been a complete no-brainer for other federal agencies to follow the NIH’s pioneering actions. But sadly, none did. And given the remarkable progress in open access that has happened in the intervening five years, for the White House to merely extend the NIH policy to other agencies is lame, retrograde action.

And it’s even worse than that. When the NIH policy was announced, people like me who believe that publicly funded works should be immediately freely available looked at the 12 month embargo period as a kind of opening bid – a concession to publishers that was necessary to get the policy off the ground, but which would ultimately disappear.

But now the White House has taken the 12 months embargo period and reified it.Year long delays are no longer an experiment by one agency. They are, in effect, the law of the land.

And why, after so clearly articulating the importance of public access in the beginning of their policy announcement, did the White House ultimately sell out the public? Here is what they say:

The Administration also recognizes that publishers provide valuable services, including the coordination of peer review, that are essential for ensuring the high quality and integrity of many scholarly publications. It is critical that these services continue to be made available.

The administration fell hook line and sinker for the ridiculous argument put forth by publishers that the only way for researchers and the public to get the services they provide is to give them monopoly control over the articles for a year – the year when they are of greatest potential use.

Think about how absurd this is. Publishers, whose role should be to disseminate information as widely as possible, are now the only reason why the public will continue to not have access to research results their tax dollars paid for.

The White House chose this path even though there is now ample evidence that this concession is unnecessary. PLoS, BioMed Central and many other open access publishers have proven that publishers can create healthy businesses that provide all the services people value without ever restricting access to the papers they publish.

That the White House chose to ignore the rise of open access publishing and allow 12 month embargoes to persist shows that they care more about industries with well payed lobbyists than they do about the public good. And if you have any doubt that the publishers got what they wanted out of this policy, you only have to read the response of the Association of American Publishers – an industry group that has long opposed any moves towards public access and has backed repeated efforts to repeal the NIH policy:

The Association of American Publishers supports the Policy on Access to Research Outputs, released today by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which outlines a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies.

Clearly the publishers got what they wanted out of the White House. And do you really think it’s going to stop there? They have established their ability to corrupt policy making, and will continue to exploit it. I predict that as these policies are implemented in different agencies, that they will be heavily tilted towards what the publishers want. There will be no central archives – just links out to publishers websites. And there will be pressure to increase – not decrease – embargo periods. The publishers are already laying the groundwork for this in their statement:

The key to the success of the policy, however, depends on how the agencies use their flexibility to avoid negative impacts to the successful system of scholarly communication that advances science, technology and innovation.

It’s sad. Had the White House actually looked at the landscape of scientific publishing with an eye towards maximizing public access, they would have realized that embargoes  are completely unnecessary. They could easily have come out with a policy that said:

From this point onward, the federal government will operate with a simple principle. Whenever the taxpayers of the United States sponsor scientific research, the results of this research will be immediately available to everyone.

Instead, once again, 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. And so I ask my friends in the open access movement, and everyone who cares about ensuring that the scientific research is as accessible and useful as it can be, is this really something you want to be celebrating?

Cross-posted from Michael Eisen's blog it is NOT junk  (tag line: a blog about genomes, DNA, evolution, open science, baseball and other important things).