In the first few weeks of 2017, just days after President Donald Trump took office, reports emerged that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture were instructing scientists on staff not to talk to the public or the press. The reports raised serious questions among open access advocates: what does it mean to advocate for public access to publicly funded scientific research at a time when the future of public funding for science itself is in question?
Put most 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. Open access publishing has long been the center of a debate over the future of academic publishing: on one side of the debate sit citizen scientists, journalists, and other members of the public eager to access and use scientific research even though they can’t afford expensive journal subscriptions and don’t have institutional access to even-more-expensive online repositories. On the other, a handful of large publishers with a massive vested interest in preserving the status quo.
In recent years, the U.S. government was a key player in the fight for open access. In 2013, the White House directed all agencies that fund scientific research to enact policies requiring that that research be made available to the public after a year, one of the biggest wins for open access in the past decade. More recently, the Executive Branch spearheaded strong sense policies on access to government-funded software and educational resources.
With the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy—the office behind many of those common-sense policies—still vastly understaffed, it’s difficult to decipher where this administration stands on open access. A year ago, we wondered whether the White House open access memo would survive an administration bent on reversing any orders with Barack Obama’s name on them. For what it’s worth, the policies implemented under the open access memo have stayed intact, even as the 2018 budget comes with new restrictions on the sorts of research those agencies can fund.
We continue to advocate for Congress to lock open access mandates into law, but movement on that front has been slow. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) would harden the government’s open access mandate against future administrations’ whims. It has strong support in both parties, but unfortunately, very few members of Congress seem interested in making it a priority.
In one of the many head-scratching moments of 2017, Senator Rand Paul incorporated the text of FASTR into his BASIC Research Act, a bill targeting what Sen. Paul refers to as “silly research.” We doubt that Paul’s bill will gain much momentum, but it’s very telling that even members of Congress who are very skeptical of funding for scientific research see the obvious benefits of an open access mandate.
Of course, Congress’ lack of interest in open access hasn’t stopped the big publishers from pulling every trick in the book to maintain their control of academic publishing. Last year, we noticed an attempt by Elsevier to extend its control of academic publishing beyond the traditional journals it’s dominated for decades. As we said then, the company’s strategy seemed to have become “if you can’t control the content anymore, then attempt to control the processes and infrastructures of scholarly publishing itself.” That trend continued in 2017 with Elsevier acquiring Digital Commons, the platform that serves as the technical backbone for numerous open access repositories.
2017 also saw a continuation of major publishers’ long, quixotic campaign to silence Sci-Hub. This time, the American Chemical Society convinced a court to order Internet infrastructure providers to cut access to the rogue repository, a clear example of copyright being abused as a tool of censorship.
As we enter 2018, it’s crucial that we don’t lose the progress we’ve made on securing publicly funded resources on behalf of the public. Congress must act to make sure that open access requirements survive no matter who’s running the government.
This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2017.
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