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Petition Obama adminstration to require free access to publicly funded research (access2research.org)
292 points by MikeTaylor on May 21, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

Theres more background on this petition at http://svpow.com/2012/05/21/help-the-usa-into-the-21st-centu... for those who want it. The TL;DR is that the UK and the European Union are introducing long overdue mandates that all publicly funded research must be publicly accessible. At the moment, the USA has no concrete plans to do the same, but Open Access advocates have the ear of Obama's scientific advisor and think there's a good chance this could make it provided that we the people show it's an issue we care about. So please sign the Whitehouse.org petition at https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions/!/petition/require-fre...

Signed. There are few taxpayer-related issues that I feel as strongly about. I actually have pretty good luck getting a copy of taxpayer-funded research papers directly from researchers by sending a politely-worded request to the PI asking for a copy. But I shouldn't have to do that -- all this research should be available to the public.

Ultimately, I hope that open access journals such as those as PLoS continue to gain prestige and become top tier journals (some of them are almost there). But meanwhile, taxpayer-funded research should be made available to the public.

"Long overdue" is an understatement, to say the least. Thanks for posting this!

Thanks. Does anyone have further information about the status of laws to mandate open access in the EU?

The forthcoming EU mandate is not yet nailed down. The best information I've seen so far is in this article in Times Higher Education: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=...

Direct link to petition: https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions/!/petition/require-fre...

It only takes a minute to sign :)

Most political petitions have no impact. They are just email-gathering campaigns. This one is different: it's on the Whitehouse site and it's not for gathering emails, it's to give Open Access advocates some political cover as they craft their proposal.

So if you sign only one online petition this year, make it this one.

I'd have signed, but after signing in, the button stays grey and I can't click it. Click on the help links brings me to an 'under construction' page. Clearing my cache and ctrl-reloading the page didn't help.

I had this problem in FF, but not in Chrome. Maybe some redirect issue? Who knows.

Maybe it's an issue with signing up. I started on Chrome, but moved to Safari and it worked on Safari.

Thank you for persisting! I hope others don't have the same awkward experience and give up.

> This one is different: it's on the Whitehouse site

> So if you sign only one online petition this year, make it this one.


Obviously different petitions will have different worthiness-levels, both in terms of their cause and their likelihood to have any effect, but I don't think your arguments really back up the "if you only sign one.." statement.

Please list any petitions that have resulted in changes in law?

Or are petitions just some way to keep people busy and feel like someone cares?

This petition is being put together specifically in response to a meeting of Open Access advocates with Obama's Science Advisor. This administration understands the issue and wants to gauge the degree of public interest. In short: while skepticism about petitions in general is warranted, this is one that can make a real difference.

Any research funded by the NIH has to be made publicly available within 12 months after publication. The papers have to be deposited with PubMed.


Yes. But NIH is one of a dozen US Government departments that have research budgets exceeding $100M per year. And so far it's the only one with a public-access mandate.

The NIH has a budget of $30B, so it's not just one of a dozen.


If I recall, it has the largest research budget of any non-military US government body by far.

I'm not from the US and I don't have a lot of knowledge about US law, but it seems strange to me that the executive branch of the government is hosting petitions for what in most other countries would fall under the legislature.

Isn't it the task of Congress in the US to set policy about what requirements are attached to the expenditure of public money, does the executive branch really have any impact on stuff like this?

You have the philosophy right, but political reality has left that behind.

While the President doesn't have any official power over the legislating process, he can wield significant political pressure as de facto head of his party, via shaping public opinion from the bully pulpit and with the threat of a veto.

Presidents have, for some time now, been very active in setting/driving legislative priorities.

It would be possible in the US for something to be enacted by an Executive Action, basically a directive to agencies from the Whitehouse. There is also legislation at the moment in the House and Senata (FRPAA) that would also achieve the same thing. If there was Whitehouse support the chance of the legislation passing is higher and if the legislation gets support there is more chance of an Executive Action so this is going from both ends.

Congress could definately make this law, but they also delegate many policy details to the executive branch - so this is likely something that could be done by either branch right now.

Regarding the 'petitions'. The 'petitions' in question here have no legal standing at all. It is essentially a way for the current administration to let the people involved feel like their views are being heard. The end result of each of these is generally either a) a canned response about how they can't comment on the petition for whatever reason or b) a rehash of current policy.

The only real impact, if any, of the petition is if they sway the administration by demonstrating what public opinion on the matter is.

Absolutely, it is the job of Congress. However, the president has some influence with members of Congress, especially those from his own party.

You are correct, which is I am not signing up to be on the Obama spam list.

Elsevier needs to burn. You want an awesome way to get a 10-20% increase in research funds? Cut the fat.

I'm no Elsevier fan, but I think that number is a bit over the top. Most Universities have site-wide access to pretty much any paper you can get your hands on. I have a really hard time believing that 10-20% of research funding feeds those journal databases.

You are correct: I am even less of an Elsevier fan that you, I'll warrant, but even their absurd prices "only" constitute on the order of 2% of the total cost of research.

But of course this makes it all the more ridiculous that we allow them to lock up the results of research. The issue here isn't just that Open Access is more economically efficient (although it is, by a factor of 3-5). The real issue is that there's so much can't do at any price with the current system or paywalls. If the Web as a whole were paywalled as academic papers are, we'd have no Google for example, because it wouldn't be possible to spider. We can't even SAY what the advantages to ubiquitous open access will be yet -- they haven't been invented, any more than spidering web-search engines were invented before the Web.

It's not just about the costs to Elsevier. It's about the costs of keeping information a secret that could have a much greater financial and societal impact if it were unleashed.

This is the age of the individual contributor. Open Source has taught us all about the power of appealing to and capturing the output of people working at home, in small groups, at small startups, etc.

So this isn't so much about recapturing the piece of a fixed pie that Elsevier takes. This is about making an incredibly larger pie by opening the information up to a wider audience and allowing us to compound the benefits in a much larger ecosystem.

Exactly! The real issue here is opportunity cost. Yes, we could have a much cheaper academic publishing system if we did it without the paywalls and the profiteering corporations. But that savings are as nothing compared with all the new application avenues that will open up when research is freely available.

I doubt the 10-20% number as well, but note that that "site-wide access" is essentially paid for out of research funds. It's called "overhead" and ranges from about half of research salary to double or more, depending on the institution. The fraction of overhead spent on journal subscription tends to be higher for smaller institutions.

I'm aware of overhead/indirects. They're not the only source of university funding, especially at public universities where you have tuition, course fees, a tax base, endowments, and a lot of other things, too. But, I'm not sure what you mean by saying it's half to double of research salary. I do know that overheads are typically at least 50% (and that's a very low bound for most institutions) of grant money received per grant.

Naturally smaller institutions are going to spend a larger piece of their pie on something if its price doesn't scale very much compared to a larger institution.

Well, when people say 50% overhead (the lower bound), they mean that the cost to the grant is `1.5*direct_cost`, not that half the grant goes to indirect costs.

Anyway, research is the primary motivation for purchasing journal subscriptions. It does not make financial sense for a non-research institution to subscribe to many journals. So regardless of which budget the subscriptions are formally taken from, they come from, it should be considered a cost of research. Making the system more efficient frees up money somewhere that reduces the cost of (externally- and internally-funded) research.

Maybe that's true of large universities, but I went to a school with around 3000 students, and most of the journal articles I looked for were not available. (At least in Computer Science.) Fortunately in CS you can track down the author's personal website, and they usually have all papers available there.

A lot of people assume that making all research that included federal grant money free to the public would be unilaterally good. I like the idea in general because I actually like to read scientific papers sometimes, but my primary interest is to maximize the amount of research that happens. Or more precisely to maximize the speed at which we acquire knowledge/technology.

Are there any existing examples of places where this has been put into practice that we can compare to see which state of affairs is better? I'm unsure it would be beneficial because most of the public wouldn't read/understand the actual journal articles anyway, and I expect most of the scientists who do work in the field already have subscriptions. I'm worried there might be harm because government mandates of all kinds very often have negative unintended consequences and I'm curious what those might be for this area.

>Or more precisely to maximize the speed at which we acquire knowledge/technology.

Who do you mean by "we"? Because you certainly can not be referring to "we" as in mankind. Locking away knowledge behind walls of bureaucracy and artificial monopolies will certainly not speed up progress, but instead slowly grind it to a halt.

Just look at the state of the patent wars. Everyone is suing each other, or claiming to just collect patents to be able to counter-sue. Microsoft, Google, Apple, and all the other big players probably each have patents on all technologies all of them use, a good amount of those more than once and worded as ridiculously over-general claims.

So if by "we" you are referring to the few dozen mega-corps that pretty much control our shared heritage of knowledge, then yes, you are quite likely correct.

If, on the other hand, you want to maximize the rate of technological advancement for the "we" as in all of humanity, then embrace Open Access, get rid of patents and all that other nonsense, and realize that incremental, cooperative development will speed up progress by magnitudes.

orbenn, please take a look at the Who Needs Access? website at http://whoneedsaccess.org/ -- it contains many case-studies of many different classes of people who need access to published research for reasons to do with health, education, commerce, third-world development and more. We definitely do need open access, and for many more reasons than just to improve the speed of basic research.

As far as I know the EU has decided that all research resulting from its 80 billion research funding program must be published open access. The US doesn't have this yet but there is a law in preparation to do just this for US government funded research. A petition might speed things up

The law in question is the FRPAA (Federal Research Public Access Act), and it's a very fine thing: see http://svpow.com/2012/02/10/d-day-going-on-the-offensive-ove... on its importance and http://www.taxpayeraccess.org/action/FRPAA2012.shtml for more details.

The current petition is a different strategy towards the same goal, approaching the Whitehouse directly in the hope of catalysing a presidential-level directive that would jump-start the process. (Not a speculative hope, either -- relevant people have the ear of Obama's scientific advisor.)

How many journal articles are not just tweaks on conference papers and the like that are already available on-line?

This is a serious question. Back when I was seriously tracking a couple of areas, I didn't care at all about journals because they were about a year behind.

Public access to data, that would be something.

This varies a lot between fields. In palaeontology, conference "papers" are only 200-word abstracts with no illustrations or references, and are not considered to be science. So papers are everything. I believe it's less straightforward in maths, for example, where conferences are much more important.

It is the same in ecology - short abstracts, not considered peer reviewed, never cited.

How about faculty/department websites? (In my experience, they're even more up to date than conferences.)

I've signed it, but I have a general question: has there been any petition on the WH site which has resulted in significant change (like a new law being submitted to Congress by the WH, or a new directive being issued) ?

I'm still disappointed that this one didn't get the necessary signatures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/planspark/6361123199/

Closest we got, imho, was Obama speaking in support of gay rights. They made a pretty big deal of it in the petitions.

As far as I know, laws? nada

Causal relationship between those petitions and Obama speaking in favor of gay marriage is highly doubtful. Obama knew where the cards lie on this issue long ago, and was waiting for an expedient moment to revert to the position he held before he run for President. Now he decided such moment has arrived. I do not think it has anything to do with any online petitions.

Probably correct, I'm afraid to say :-(

I signed it, that only makes sense If the public is going to fund it, then they should be able to see the research. To be honest, I didn't even know that publicly funded research wasn't all public.

Should this be extended to books that are based on publicly funded research?

I don't want to pay to access gov funded research, but content that takes that research and either applies a better organizational structure or adds additional value seems worth paying for.

If the author of the book wasn't adding any value, you wouldn't need the book, you could just read the research.

The question is relevant to a lot of fields where the outcome of the research is not a technical research report, but is an actual book. This occurs a lot when studying history.

Interesting, I didn't even consider history books. I don't know enough about how history books are written or their economic model, but I would hope the people creating the proposal would research that as well.

Just having the research available isn't the full investment in a book that uses it. If the government further funds the book based on the research, maybe that would be appropriate. If, however, I invest time and money into writing a book that incorporates research, I'd want a return on that investment.

"I invest time and money into writing a book that incorporates research, I'd want a return on that investment."

If you're an academic, you won't get it. The way academic publishing works is that you do the research, write it up, prepare the illustrations, then sign over copyright of the whole lot to a publisher such as Elsevier. They will then publish the book, make a tidy profit, and pay you: nothing. Nothing at all.

What about a case where part of your of your effort, say half, in doing the research and writing a paper were supported by a government grant and the rest was supported by your employer or was unsupported. This may be typical of the rok done by a university faculty member or graduate student.

I couldn't really find anything on the site on this, so the question: are non-US citizens allowed to sign? If so, are they encouraged to sign?

Sorry for the slow response. Yes, non-US citizens absolutely are invited to sign -- please do! (I did, and I am British.)

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