The open access movement is a long-standing campaign to make scholarly works both freely available and reusable. One of its fundamental premises is that the progress of knowledge and culture happens when scholarly works of all kinds are widely shared, rather than hidden in ivory towers built with paywalls and buttressed by harsh legal regimes. That is why open access has two primary goals:

  1. Making research available online to the public, free of cost. This could be through an online repository hosted by a university, agency, or private entity; or through an open access journal.
  2. Making sure research is reusable by publishing it under an open licensing scheme. This allows for works not only to be read, but also to be analyzed and built upon for downstream innovation and the pursuit of knowledge.

Scholarly journal publishers currently compile research done by professors (for free), send articles out to be peer reviewed (for free), and distribute the edited journals back to universities and institutions around the world (charging anywhere up to $35,000 each). Subscription prices have outpaced inflation by over 250 percent in the past 30 years, and these fees go straight to the publisher—resulting in unbelievable profit margins. Neither the authors nor their institutions are paid a cent, and the research itself—which is largely funded by taxpayers—remains difficult to access, much less repurpose, compare, or share. Skyrocketing costs have forced institutions and university libraries—even Harvard's, the richest American university—to pick and choose between journal subscriptions.

The result: Even as new technologies are making it easier than ever to share knowledge, students and citizens face barriers accessing information they need (and help fund); professors have a harder time reviewing and teaching the state of the art; and cutting-edge research is locked up far too long behind paywalls, depriving it of the visibility it deserves.

Legislation and Government Action

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Memorandum

The White House released a memorandum (PDF) on February 22, 2013, in support of a more robust policy for public access to research, making the results of billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded research freely available online. The memorandum gives government agencies six months to detail plans to ensure the public can read and analyze both research and data, without charge. The embargo period for the OSTP policy, however, is recommended at twelve months, and the policy does not mention reuse rights.

Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR)

The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) takes a strong public access policy and, unlike the White House memorandum, sets it in law. Introduced by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representatives Mike Doyle (D-PA), Kevin Yoder (R-KS), and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the bill would require any government agency with an extramural research budget of above $100 million to ensure that the research it funds is placed in a public repository within six months of publication.

The bill does not have any open licensing requirements, but it 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 is a strong, important step towards access to new, innovative, publicly funded research. Contact your lawmakers and tell them to support FASTR.

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