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Open Access Rewards Passionate Curiosity: 2016 in Review

December 24, 2016

In February 2016, a team of scientists published one of the most important pieces of scientific research so far this century. For the first time, researchers had directly observed gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime whose discovery Albert Einstein first predicted a century ago. The team effectively placed the last piece in the puzzle confirming Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity—in doing so, they took a giant leap forward in humans’ understanding of how the universe works.

Something else was confirmed that day, too: open access publishing is no inferior sibling to closed publishing. The paper—Observational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger (PDF)—was published in an open access journal under a Creative Commons license that ensures anyone can copy, adapt, and reuse it as long as they give the authors credit.

Put simply, open access is the practice of making research and other materials freely available online, ideally under licenses that allow anyone to share and adapt them. For years, open access publishing has been at the center of a struggle over the future of research: will cutting-edge scholarship be published in the open for anyone to see, use, and build upon? Or will it stay trapped in a labyrinth of closed publications only to be read by those who can afford expensive journal subscriptions and academic databases?

In many ways, 2015 was academic publishing’s Napster moment. As publishing giant Elsevier fought to keep Sci-Hub off the Internet, it accomplished just the opposite. While the legal battle between Elsevier and Sci-Hub has trudged through 2016, more people than ever have begun using the unauthorized academic research repository.

Maybe 2016 was the year publishers realized they had to change course. Elsevier agreed to compromise with the Dutch academic community, allowing researchers covered by the publisher’s blanket agreement with Dutch universities to publish their research openly. That’s a small step, but an indicator that Elsevier recognizes the significance of the demand for open access.

Elsevier hasn’t always chosen to compromise, however. The publisher stunned the humanities and social sciences communities by buying beloved preprints server SSRN. (Preprints are versions of academic papers that have not yet completed a formal peer review process. Sharing preprints online is an increasingly popular practice in many fields.) Early signs have made many observers question whether Elsevier will steward SSRN appropriately, and open access advocates quickly launched an alternative.

On the heels of the SSRN incident came another bombshell from Elsevier: the publisher filed a patent on online peer review. Together, the SSRN purchase and the flimsy patent paint a disturbing picture of Elsevier’s new strategy: if you can’t control the content anymore, then attempt to control the processes and infrastructures of scholarly publishing itself.

Many, though, are working to keep that research open. Several universities in the U.S. adopted open access policies, including Florida State University, the University of Arizona, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Middlebury College. Funders of research stepped up to the plate too: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation strengthened its existing open access policy, lifting the embargo period and requiring that research be made freely available immediately.

At the legislative level, Congress failed to pass the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which would have required that all research funded by the federal government be made available for free to the public no later than six months after publication. FASTR would have been roughly equivalent to the White House’s 2013 memo on open access publishing. We hope that the new administration recognizes the importance of keeping federally funded research available to the public and that it continues to enforce an open access mandate.

We continue to urge both Congress and the Executive Branch to adopt policies that will ensure that works created by the government are fully available too. We praised the OPEN Government Data Act, which would have required that many government-created data sets be made public. The act would have locked into law the provisions of a 2013 Executive Order, but, unfortunately, it stalled in the House of Representatives. We also praised a proposed White House policy on government-created software, but were disappointed with the final result. As with open access publishing, we hope that the new administration recognizes the importance of open data to a transparent and effective government.

Open access isn’t an abstract, academic issue. It’s about our right to learn and be curious. As a graduate student at the University of Quindio in Colombia, Diego Gomez shared another researcher’s Master’s thesis with contacts over the Internet. He now risks a prison sentence of up to eight years in a case that has progressed very slowly throughout 2016.

“I have no special talents,” Albert Einstein famously said. “I am only passionately curious.” Today, open access publishing rewards the passionate curiosity of readers and researchers all over the world, regardless of their institutional connections. As we look forward to 2017, we hope that lawmakers, researchers, and publishers can work better together to make sure that such passion is rewarded, never punished.

This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2016.

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