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New Bill Helps Expand Public Access to Scientific Knowledge

February 15, 2013

Internet users around the world got a Valentine's Day present yesterday in the form of new legislation that requires U.S. government agencies to improve public access to federally funded research.

The proposed mandate, called the Fair Access to Science & Technology Research Act, or FASTR (PDF), is simple. Agencies like the National Science Foundation, which invests millions of taxpayer dollars in scientific research every year, must design and implement a plan to facilitate public access to—and robust reuse of—the results of that investment. The contours of the plans are equally simple: researchers who receive funding from most federal agencies must submit a copy of any resulting journal articles to the funding agency, which will then make that research freely available to the world within six months.

Compare that to the traditional system, which gives journal publishers substantial control over access to academic work, even though they don't pay a dime in exchange to the authors who do the research, the peer-reviewers who vet the research, or the institutions that help make it possible. Those publishers will doubtless oppose the bill, but it is their own decision to continually raise the bar to access that is driving support for the legislation. For example, subscription prices have outpaced inflation by over 250 percent in the past 30 years, forcing university libraries to pick and choose between journal subscriptions. The result: students and citizens have difficulty accessing information they need; professors have a harder time reviewing and teaching the state of the art; and cutting-edge research is often hidden behind paywalls.

The proposed changes reflect but also improve upon National Institutes of Health’s public access policy. Under that policy, all research—oftentimes critical medical research—is made available online a year after publication. FASTR reduces the “embargo” period to six months and mandates stronger reuse requirements.

The bill isn't perfect. For example, it doesn’t require open licensing, the obvious next step. However, the bill does require agencies to examine “whether such research papers should include a royalty-free copyright license that is available to the public and that permits the reuse of those research papers, on the condition that attribution is given.” Such a license would allow for complete reuse of published research, including in downstream research or computational meta-analysis.

FASTR also excludes "research resulting in works that generate revenue or royalties for authors (such as books) or patentable discoveries, to the extent necessary to protect a copyright or patent." We're worried how courts – and publishers—will interpret this clause, If a publisher decides to pay authors $100 per article, is the research excluded from public access? We hope not.

Shortcomings aside, this legislation is an important step forward. Public access to taxpayer-funded research is vital to the progress of science, education, and transparency—and FASTR goes a long way toward making that happen, at least for future works. (Next up: freeing up the knowledge not covered by this legislation, such as journal articles long-since published.) The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Wyden (D-OR) and Representatives Doyle (D-PA), Yoder (R-KS), and Lofgren (D-CA). Contact your representatives today and tell them to support FASTR .

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