Open Access: Federally Funded Research Results To Be Free

Open access is coming to a research facility near you. The White House has agreed that US citizens should be able to see the results of the federally funded research they pay for. John P. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), issued a memo Friday stating that the Obama administration is “committed” to providing the public with the results of taxpayer-funded research.

Any federal agency that spends more than $100 million a year on research must now share their findings with the public for free.

OSTP’s Assistant Director for Biotechnology Michael Stebbins acknowledged that the White House recognized the concerns of the more than 65,000 citizens who recently signed a petition demanding the open access.

Mark Felsenthal for Reuters noted that the White House change of policy comes in the wake of the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz, an advocate for open access who was accused of stealing almost five million articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz pled not guilty to the charges, but the 26-year-old faced up to 50 years in prison and $1 million in fines, according to an in-depth report on his life by Wesley Yang for New York Magazine.

Apparently unable to arrange an acceptable plea agreement with prosecutors, Swartz may have thought he had no choice except to hang himself. His death resulted in an outcry in the open access community, sparking the petition to the White House.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts considered Swartz a thief for copying and releasing the research. However, a Washington Postreport makes you wonder who was really stealing. At the moment, “much taxpayer-funded research is published in academic journals that cost up to $20,000 a year,” according to Post writers Brian Vastag and David Brown. Ouch.

Nature’sRichard Van Noorden reported that the new policy will require the researchers to provide free publication of their findings after a 12-month delay — potentially doubling the number of free articles made available each year. The National Institutes of Health have already had such a policy in place since 2008, and they are expected to provide an example for other federal agencies.

Agencies that take hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers need to report openly to those taxpayers. As far as I’m concerned, open access seems like an idea that’s long overdue.