Earlier this week, an Access2Research petition supporting open access — specifically free access over the Internet to academic articles arising from taxpayer-funder research — crossed its target of 25,000 signatures, two weeks ahead of schedule.1 The Obama administration has promised to respond to petitions that pass that threshold, so the issue of access to research should be firmly on the White House agenda.

As well it should be. The open access movement, which began well over a decade ago, is garnering more and more attention lately. Earlier this year, we saw the resounding defeat of the misguided Research Works Act, which would have severely restricted the amount of research that could be released under open access conditions. A group of researchers launched the "Cost of Knowledge" campaign responding to the proposal, and allowed other academics to publicly boycott the bill’s primary supporter, the publishing behemoth Elsevier. In response to that boycott and other pressure, Elsevier withdrew its support for the Research Works Act in February, effectively killing the bill.

Of course, open access has long had the support of many scholars and major universities. For example, Harvard is among a large and growing group of schools that requires open access as a matter of policy. And earlier this year, the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council went a step further, issuing a memo that said "major periodical subscriptions cannot be sustained," and urging all faculty to submit their work to specifically open access journals. That memo was a wakeup call: if even Harvard was worried about the cost of academic journals, imagine the impact that cost must be having on institutions that don't have access to the same level of resources.

But now non-academics are paying attention, too, as the 25,000 signatures on the Access2Research petition attest. That support may reflect increased attention to issues related to copyright since January's blackout protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). Traditional journals insist that scholars sign over the copyright to their work, and then leverage those rights to charge institutions and taxpayers exorbitant fees for subscriptions or single articles — even though these are the same institutions and and taxpayers who supported the original research. By contrast, open access journals allow any users to "read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of their articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself."

Support for open access then, like opposition to bills like SOPA and PIPA, is a common-sense position that has traditionally been hampered by a concentrated lobby in Washington working against the diffuse public interest. Online activism campaigns are helping to focus and target that diffuse interest to make real change. What is more, we're moving from reacting to bad proposals toward promoting a positive copyright agenda. Open access should be central piece of that platform.

The fight for that positive agenda is far from over, but it’s exciting to see so many joining in. In a post responding to the 25,000th signature, Cameron Neylon of PLoS summed it up nicely:

We now know how much we can achieve when we work together with a shared goal. The challenge now is to harness that to a shared understanding of the direction of travel, if perhaps not the precise route. But if we, with all the diversity of needs and views that this movement contains, we can find the core of goals that we all agree on, then what we now know is that we have the capacity, the depth, and the strength to achieve them.

Well said.

  • 1. The petition is still open for new signatures, in case you haven't signed and wish to.

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