The FIRST Act Is the Last Open Access Reform We'd Ever Want
We've long advocated for public support of the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, or FASTR, an important bill that will go far to promote open access to federally funded research. Unfortunately, it looks like FASTR has traditional publishers scared enough to try a blatantly deceptive tactic: a push for "alternative legislation" that pretends to encourage open access but actually undermines it. Enter the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2013, or FIRST Act (PDF), recently discussed in the House Science Committee. FIRST takes us in the wrong direction, which is why EFF has signed onto a letter (PDF) alongside ten other library, publishing, and advocacy organizations strongly opposing Title III, Section 302 of FIRST.
The relevant section's language states that every federal science agency must create a policy that allows for the submission of or linking to covered material—federally funded research articles or data. Unfortunately, articles can be restricted behind a paywall for up to 24 months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal. This is far too long of a period for effective open access—far too long of a period for the progress of science.
But it doesn't stop there: FIRST allows each agency to extend this embargo period by up to twelve months if it sees fit after consultation with stakeholders.
Three years without access to federally funded scientific research strays far from the White House policy directive released earlier this year, which suggests a 12 month embargo (still far too long in our opinion). It also contradicts existing policy, such as the National Institutes of Health public access policy that requires all funded research to be made publicly available on their repository within a year. The NIH repository, PubMed Central, gets over a million unique users a day, amply demonstrating the public utility of open access.
The FIRST Act's language also allows for "linking to" covered material—in other words, allowing publishers to host the articles and data themselves, as long as each agency has a thorough bibliography that links to a publicly available version. While this accomplishes simple "access," it does not foster preservation of scientific research.
Such provisions point to one culprit: a small but powerful subset of the publishing industry. They've already tried pushing for similar provisions—such as linking to their own websites—with their CHORUS proposal revealed this past summer. They are the only group that might benefit from longer embargo periods—read, a longer period to impose outrageous paywalls. Every other stakeholder—from researchers to students, healthcare professionals to patients—loses out.
The time is ripe for real open access reform. While the White House directive is a great step and has already gotten federal agencies to design public access policies, we need a strong law that codifies open access—FASTR. Tell your representatives you aren't fooled by the FIRST "alternative" and that they shouldn't be either.