February 22, 2013 | By Adi Kamdar

White House Open Access Memo Strong, Could Be Stronger

Today, the White House released a memorandum (PDF) 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. Both open access and open data are key to promoting innovation, government transparency, and scientific progress.

As put by Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy:

Scientific research supported by the Federal Government spurs scientific breakthroughs and economic advances when research results are made available to innovators. Policies that mobilize these intellectual assets for re-use through broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth.

This comes on the heels of Congress' introduction of FASTR (Fair Access to Science & Technology Research), a bill that sets into law many of the same goals as the memorandum. There are, however, some key differences:

  • FASTR requires published research to be made available online after six months. The memorandum's recommended "embargo period" is unfortunately twelve months; however, there is a required process that allows petitions to shorten this embargo length for particular fields of study.
  • The White House memo includes public access to digital scientific data, which is defined the facts "necessary to validate research findings including data sets used to support scholarly publications." This is a huge step, allowing researchers and innovators to read, analyze, and build upon scientific work.
  • Both FASTR and the White House memorandum are weak on open licensing requirements: FASTR does include language requiring agencies to assess "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" (e.g. CC-BY or similar licenses); the memorandum is silent on the issue. The last thing we need is copyright to be abused to prevent scientific collaboration.

Though the memorandum marks an important milestone in government support for open access to taxpayer-funded research, it is crucial for a bill like FASTR to become law. Because a future administration could just as easily change its policy away from open access, a legislative soution is necessary for ensuring a future of innovation and access to knowledge.

We encourage you to contact your lawmakers today and tell them to support FASTR.

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