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NASA paywalls first papers arising from Curiosity rover – I am setting them free (michaeleisen.org)
569 points by rflrob on Sept 26, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 121 comments

Actually, the real question is why the raw data isn't free.

Note: I worked briefly as a contractor at JPL in 2011 on a project related to Curiosity image-processing and distribution (among other things).

I argued at the time (fairly strenuously) that the raw data (the data that was used by the scientists in this paper) should be public.

The reason the data is not released immediately to the public is both understandable and frustrating: scientists around the world compete for control of Curiosity's precious mission time. The mission is refreshed every day, each move is voted on and the results uploaded to the rover. The data is not released to give the "winning" scientists first crack at interpreting the data. It's about prestige - if you released the data and get "scooped" by Joe Public it's embarrassing but it's also a lost opportunity for scientific prestige.

The same basic reasoning is why so many JPL-produced datasets (particularly astronomical but also terrestrial - JPL does a lot of weather research) are not public.

Personally, I'd like to see this change. I want all publicly-funded non-military research projects have an open data policy. Clearly this would not apply to research with straight-up defense applications. But Mars rover data? I suspect that scientists will be incentivized without being granted artificial monopolies on that data.

I don't think anyone disagrees that the raw data should be eventually made public, and preferably sooner rather than later. But initially it's all about the message: you need time to properly analyse the data and release the results responsibly. If you just released the raw data first, how long do you think it'd be before all manner of crackpot headlines popped up? There'd be a race to be the first publication to get something interesting (and likely wildly incorrect) from the data. The fact is, most people aren't qualified to interpret the data.

As for the prestige? That's important too. Not because people care about the prestige in and of itself, but because it enables further scientific research by helping to acquire funding. It's a very principled view to take that scientific research, in theory, should be separate from ego, but in the real world the fact is that reputation matters because not everyone has time to independently verify everything. Ask any practicing scientist and they'll tell you that they're far more willing to trust certain research groups than others, and that's ultimately what the "prestige" is all about.

> The fact is, most people aren't qualified to interpret the data.

All too often, when that is given as an excuse, the people analyzing the data turn out to have made mistakes and the general public does have qualified individuals who can, and will, point out the errors. Alongside this, frequently this raw data is not shared with the reviewers, who should be qualified and should need the data to do a proper review. Unfortunately, this often results in a rubber stamp culture of reviewing rather than thorough peer review to validate the results.

> The fact is, most people aren't qualified to interpret the data.

so what if most people isn't qualified? Data is data, and can be used - even for crackpots who wants to use it. If these crackpots publishes something wrong, i m sure they'd be pointed out and either ignored or shunned by the publisher(s) anyway.

I agree with you in general terms (quick release is best).

But I think your post is in error because it implies that the raw data is not eventually made public. To my knowledge, this is not true -- especially for Earth missions, I think all that data is public. Perhaps the level 0 data [essentially, raw telemetry] is not, but everything from level 1 up will be public.

The data-release culture is very discipline specific. In planetary (e.g. Mars), there are embargo periods -- partly to ensure the systematics are understood. In cosmology, a four-year embargo period for Planck was ended just this summer. This kind of makes sense -- they didn't want half the astrophysicists in the world off chasing a phantom caused by their very sensitive noise-suppression tools. But I understand the community was getting pretty impatient. So, there is push-back.

For Earth missions, after an initial calibration period, I think all the data is made public as fast as it can be processed. Indeed, MODIS even broadcasts the raw data to whomever wants to pick it up (http://modis.gsfc.nasa.gov/data/directbrod/), like disaster responders.

Like I said, it's discipline-specific. For disciplines where time matters (Earth, space weather, seismicity/geodesy, time-domain astronomy) there is a real advantage in releasing data fast, and that's what has happened. I could give websites in each case where data is released in near-real time, say, less than 1 hour after taken.

Someone asked for links, here are a few:

geodesy: http://pbo.unavco.org/data/gps/realtime

Earth: http://rapidfire.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/realtime/

space weather: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/SWN/

time-domain astronomy: http://voeventnet.caltech.edu/feeds/Catalina.shtml

The last one is pretty neat. It contains an XML event summary that can be used to target a telescope automatically, if you think that event is of interest to you. The events are automatically found by an image-processing front end which taps into a near-earth-objects survey. In other words, they did the hard work already to find unexplained brightness variations.

Don't forget about PDS! The Planetary Data System is where all NASA-funded data ends up eventually: http://pds.nasa.gov/

You're right, PDS is very germane to the current topic. I was thinking real-time sources only.

I'd love some examples of where to find this data?

I worked on the LRO project for 4 years (on the LROC science operations team, we ran the cameras). LROC released, and continues to release, all of the data to PDS where it is publicly available. A release happens every 3 months, with a six month lag. The data are released as a set, with raw[1] and calibrated data released concurrently. So the raw data actually are available, just not immediately.

Now there's some difference between LROC and Curiosity. A Mars rover is much higher profile, of course. But it's also a snail's eye view. I imagine timeliness is a much bigger deal with rover data. Whereas with LROC (and the other LRO instruments) there's a massive data set that can fuel interesting research for years to come. So who comes to get the raw data? Very few people, as it turns out. Who but a planetary scientist getting paid to do Lunar stuff has the time, ability and inclination? Also, DLR (German space people) managed some really awesome original stuff with our data, and not having it as soon as it came down didn't seem to hamper them.


1. By "raw" I mean EDR (Electronic Data Record), which may be reorganized to facilitate access and conform to PDS format, but contain unaltered, unprocessed measurements.

But, considering this research is tax-funded (that includes my taxes), shouldn't I, a funder of this research, be allowed to access the raw results?

(disclaimer - I'm a former NASA contractor and current federal employee, though not at NASA)

Yes - and, in fact, the Administration released a memo on this topic earlier this year ("Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research" - http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ost...). However, each agency is responsible for developing their own individual plan on how to carry this out, and I don't believe NASA's has been published yet.

But why should I, as a non-American, have access to that same data? Or this documents made free in the OP?

the fact is, as a non-tax paying non-american you don't have the privilege to access it, but for the "generosity" of the US Gov't (and the fact that enforcing copyright for these things is both costly and not worthwhile).

There is a balance between accessing raw results and everyone accessing the means by which those raw results are accessed.

I say this as an Information Wants To Be Free t-shirt wearer.

No one hates someone who holds something if they know the holding of it is something everyone wants.

Surely the solution to this problem is to put the data into the public domain after a reasonable embargo period of maybe a few months or a year?

This seems fair to me, but I'm not the one who's being told, "Look, find a breakthrough in a year or you're going to get scooped by an amateur."

It would be ironic and painful if open data policies resulted in scientists leaving the public sector, and I'd really like to see more open data.

Seems like the guy requesting that certain data be collected is due some measure of academic credit for having the foresight to know what question to ask, even if someone else "scoops" them on the analysis.

Sure, sometimes the right question will be starkly obvious, but no system is perfect.

> Seems like the guy requesting that certain data be collected is due some measure of academic credit for having the foresight to know what question to ask, even if someone else "scoops" them on the analysis.

I'd agree, but my knowledge of the academic community is that credit goes by published papers and, secondarily, how often you get cited. This seems like one of those things where we just don't have a great system for giving people credit, and the one we do have is problematic.

(Wealth is like that, too. Also, resumes.)

Which is where things like figshare [0] work well. You can publish datasets/figures and you get a citable DOI for free. I published code there that my wife cited in her PhD, without having to do the usual computer science thing of writing a paper about it and having people cite that.

Disclaimer: I work for a partner company.

[0] http://figshare.com/

This is exactly how it works and that data can be found here on the MSL PDS Archive: http://geo.pds.nasa.gov/missions/msl/index.htm

I think the standard release delay is six months. Though I'd say its less about exclusive access to data than it is about ensuring the consistency of that data. MANY things change in the early days of a mission.

I personally feel most government scientific data(non- defense) should be released immediately.

I have a feeling there's more than a few Einstein's out there delivering pizzas. Go ahead and laugh, but I feel some big mysteries will be solved by dropouts, and the self taught.

> The reason the data is not released immediately to the public is both understandable and frustrating: scientists around the world compete for control of Curiosity's precious mission time.

The same applies for the giant telescopes (KECK, VLT, ALMA, etc). A scientist applies for some time doing observations with the telescope, and gets exclusive access to the data for 2 years before the data gets released to the public.

But I agree with you too, all scientific data that is acquired with taxpayer money should be released to the public at once.

A related paper, "The Virtues of Frugality - Why cosmological observers should release their data slowly": http://arxiv.org/abs/0909.2649

All government data, excluding true national security issues and PI data, should be open and free by default. You shouldn't have to file a FOIA request for anything (in the US), it should be publicly accessible.

Prestige? Prestige?

Science is not about prestige. It's about science. If you want prestige, go become a jockey, or the world's best hooker. Too many "scientists" are in it for the holidays, money, and "prestige", rather than the, y'know, SCIENCE.

I'm afraid it's not "understandable", it's nasty, selfish, and contrary to scientific advancement.

By not releasing data, they're preventing the internet hivemind from doing its thing - and it has managed some pretty impressive things (NEAR target spotting, anyone?).

I agree with your sentiment, but sadly science (or rather, the doing of science) is about prestige.

Put yourself in the shoes of a funding agency. If you have two grant proposals, one from somebody at an institution in the middle of the country you haven't heard of, or someone with a strong publication record in big-name journals --- who are you going to award the money to?

A scientist in academia needs funding and publications for tenure. To get publications, funding is needed for equipment, postocs, etc. To get funding, a list of publications is needed so that people recognize your track-record. It keeps on spiraling. To paraphrase from Pratchett in Carpe Jugulum: "Human families raise their successors, but a [s/vampire/professor] is raising competitors." There's a limited funding pool that the researchers are fighting for.

It doesn't seem much better in the industry side of things. For instance, Google [X] is an extremely prominent research lab. However, why? They work on ??? something that no one really knows about for years and don't publish anything. The scientists there may come out in 5 years with something really cool, but if it doesn't pan out, the Google machine will eat it up and the public won't see. Science there is more about the company's prestige than science.

Perhaps prestige needs to be replaced with something else like commercial value. Whilst this will not work for all topics, perhaps it could be one variable in a group of others that should be taken into account.

Well, prestige is used as currency precisely because we as a society need a mechanism to generate knowledge that isn't (immediately) commercializable. I, for one, would find it tragic if we lost that.

Many scientists hate the commercial part of their research. In fact that's sometimes the main reason why some of them choose to stay in (relatively) poorly paid academic positions

> Too many "scientists" are in it for the holidays, money

Yeah no. Prestige within the profession yes, these two you probably get more of (and less politics and having to fight for grants) piloting garbage trucks.

And talking about grants, that's a big part of what "prestige" is about. There is also an ego-stroking component but the scrap-fighting of obtaining grants (and keeping them) requires publication and forces many into "prestige-seeking" not because they want to do it but because without it they get no grants and without grants they get to do no science.

> I'm afraid it's not "understandable", it's nasty, selfish, and contrary to scientific advancement.

Fix science funding and 90% of the "prestige" issues will be fixed.

well we don't get paid jack. 99.9 % of the science undertook is boring, inconclusive or negative results.

The only carrot is prestige, and the only perks are holidays ...

I dunno why you suggested money because there is none (in wages).

I expect a big reason for not releasing the data is ... who is gonna do the necessary steps to release the data? You want to take a scientist off his role to build a website and database?? We have little administrative support (probably JPL has better, but still, yet another distraction that eats time from our main job that pays too little). The people that make websites for a living get paid better the scientists, so its a bit harsh to expect scientists to constantly be building website to share data whilst paying them under the industry norms.

"I expect a big reason for not releasing the data is..."

No, no, no. The data are released. The mission pays people to properly calibrate, process, and format the data. NASA then pays to host the data indefinitely. The basic link for planetary data is http://pds.jpl.nasa.gov . There are other sites for Earth, solar, astrophysical, etc., data.

Source: I know the people who run PDS.

The kerfuffle in the thread is about derived papers, in some cases by non-US collaborators, not the data itself. To the extent it is about data, it's about the post-capture embargo period of a couple of months (in the case of initial Mars data).

In his article, the OP mentions "$2.5 billion taxpayer dollars that made it possible". Sorry you don't get paid as much as you'd like -- that doesn't give you the moral high ground. Doing it for "prestige" still isn't a good reason.

At a cost of 2.5 billion, I don't think it's too harsh to expect a small budget for releasing the data publicly.

I sympathise with your goals but you're being a douche. Science is a crap career if you're chasing money. You're a smart college graduate with excellent grades who spends 4-7 years doing an apprenticeship for piss poor money, then a postdoc, for three years, maybe a second postdoc, and if you're lucky you then get a tenure track position. Now you have seven years of earning high school teacher money but working 60-80 hours a week and at the end of it there's an excellent chance you'll be fired.

People do science for love or glory, not money. (Except people from 2nd or 3rd world countries studying or postdocing in industrial nations. For them it's a sweet deal.)

(Except people from 2nd or 3rd world countries studying or postdocing in industrial nations. For them it's a sweet deal.)

Reminded me of this article:http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html

I agree with your message in idea but sadly in the world we live in; without prestige you don't get founding.

That's prestige as in your boss says, "Okay, you published in a prestigious journal, which means you must be doing very good work -- which I can't judge easily -- so we're not going to fire you." Prestige is how scientists can be evaluated by people who are not part of the same very narrow speciality. Scientists who don't get prestige don't get to be scientists very long.

The problem is that if you aren't guaranteed some payoff (in terms of publications that will make it possible for you to get more grants and continue your work) from your work developing the experiments and getting the data, what's the incentive? It's not about being greedy (though there are certainly examples of that) but about encouraging good science.

And I don't think people are worried about the internet hive mind, they are worried about their competitors who did not get the grant to actually collect the data.

Scientists with "prestige" get positions at nice universities, labs, raises, smart people who want to talk to them, smart PhD students who want to work with them, etc.

Scientists without "prestige" end up being poorly paid, teaching intro to chemistry at a community college to students who just want a piece of paper to help them find a job, and unable to get the funding to even buy a laptop, let alone a lab.

So prestige matters a lot to scientists, whether they like it or not.

The only way you have a chance at solving this system is by changing the reward metrics; find a way to make it more rewarding to release the data then to keep it for yourself. But if you just mandate the data be released, then the scientists will be actively discouraged from collecting data, and probably move away from the field.

I don't understand your argument at all---scientists are in it for the money? Really, what money is that?

But what I find really interesting from your post is the sense that scientists are supposed to be saints. You don't say this explicitly, but I get that sense from you implying that it is somehow bad for a scientist to be selfish or to want to be paid. (Or to want to be a scientist at all, since if you can't get funding then you can't work anywhere.) Are scientists all supposed to be volunteers?

Myself, I have no problem with professional scientists who selfishly want to get paid for their work. In most areas of science, the internet hivemind has had zero impact. Scientific advancement would stop dead if we stopped paying scientists.

> no problem with professional scientists who selfishly want to get paid for their work.

nor do i, but if their only method of getting paid is to restrict others from using raw data till they've made their break through "discovery", then they are not worth what they are paid!

I think the answer to this question is better left to those doing the actual science.

His assumption that these works must be public domain is questionable. It is true that US government works are generally not subject to copyright in the US, but that is when they are works of government employees producing the works within the scope of their employment.

There are two big limitations on this. First, if the government work incorporates outside copyrighted work, only the parts authored by the government employee operating within the scope of his employment are public domain.

Second, this only applies to government employees. It does NOT apply to contractors. What happens with copyright of works produced by contractors under a government contract is determined by the terms of the contract.

The Curiosity project is largely run at JPL. JPL is managed for NASA by Caltech. Almost all JPL employees are neither government employees nor government contractors. They are Caltech employees.

To figure out the copyright status of works authored by JPL employees, we'd need to look at their employment contract with Caltech, and with Caltech's contract with NASA.

> The Curiosity project is largely run at JPL. JPL is managed for NASA by Caltech. Almost all JPL employees are neither government employees nor government contractors. They are Caltech employees.

Somewhat tangential to your main point (because, as you correctly note, only works by government employees within the scope of employment are categorically not subject to copyright), the employees are employees of a firm contracting with the government and working on that contract; that's the usual meaning of "government contractors". So its a non-standard use of terminology to say that they aren't government contractors.

I don't think it's standard belief that anyone funded by an NSF grant is a government contractor. The rights to work done in a university setting with NSF support are not transferred to the government; copyrights generally remain with the authors and patents are governed by employer/employee IP agreements.

JPL is not operated under an NSF grant, or any other grant. This isn't NASA being a patron, it's NASA paying CalTech for its services to NASA. CalTech operates JPL under contract with NASA, according to NASA's directions. NASA even has its own staff on-site overseeing the work. This is a business relationship, established under 48 CFR 35.017, part of the Federal Acquisition Regulations:


Well put.

I can answer your last question. Publications that have a JPL main author go through an approval process in which copyright is retained by the Government.

Back in the old days, JPL's lawyers used to intercede directly when, say, IEEE said you needed to release copyright to IEEE in order to get your paper published. (You have to savor those moments when the lawyers work in your favor.)

That said, as pointed out elsewhere, most of the papers did not have JPL first authors, and their copyright status will be less clear. Even the project scientist, John Grotzinger, is not officially JPL (he's Caltech):


If copyright was "retained by the Government", it's OK to put the paper content up on a public web site. But I don't think anyone is actively doing so, e.g., for all such NASA work.

>Even the project scientist, John Grotzinger, is not officially JPL (he's Caltech):

Grotzinger and any other scientists, postdocs, engineers, and other collaboration members are going to be working under their own grants; almost always funded by a gov't agency. Caltech, incidentally will be taking 40%-60% of those funds as rent (overhead).

Did they get funded by our taxes? Were they given the funds specifically to further scientific research?

Yes! and Yes!

In the end, its the publishers choice to argue in court that tax funded space research are not in the public domain. That can backfire quite heavily, and create a precedent for other similar articles.

Second is mens rea. A "reasonable compliance upon an official statement of law, afterward determined to be invalid or erroneous" does not constitute a criminal act.

Also, the journal publisher definitely owns the page layout, and can potentially claim copyright to the final text, since its editors contributed to it during the review process.

The publisher "owns" the layout only for the creative expression within the page layout. There's not likely to be much copyrightable expression within a page layout. And infringement of that expression by republishing the article is likely to meet the criteria for fair use.

Editorial contributions are also unlikely to rise to the measure of a separately copyrightable work. In the case of scientific articles, joint authorship between contributing scientists is common, but the editors of the journal are never (rarely?) cited as authors. Occasionally, a reviewer will make substantive contributions to the science and join as a co-author.

It seems pretty safe to say that if the editor is not listed as a co-author of the paper, neither the author(s) nor the editor(s) consider it a "joint work".

See also http://lottfischer.com/general.php?category=Resources&subhea... for a discussion of when the editing could arise (basically, if both the author and the editor intend for it to be a work of joint authorship.)

I don't know enough about the relevant case law to tell you for certain that the layout is copyrightable, but my gut feeling is that it is, since that bar is pretty low and copying the publisher's PDF seems kind of analogous to copying a website's HTML. Fair use may not be applicable here, since even though the layout is a small proportion of the total work, it has value independent of the text: People might spend money (or persuade their university to spend money) to buy the publisher's PDF even if the manuscript were available for free. Given your link I agree that the review process is unlikely to give the publisher any claim to the text itself.

I do know that most author agreements for non-open access journals allow authors to publish the manuscript on their personal website and in repositories (sometimes pre-review, sometimes post-review), but most do not allow authors to publish the publisher's PDF, which suggests that the publishers believe they have some kind of ownership over the latter. (In practice many people post the publisher's PDF articles on their websites and no one complains, although repositories like PubMed Central contain only manuscripts from these journals.)

The AAAS author agreement actually explicitly allows authors to legally publish the peer reviewed manuscript on their websites as soon as it is published, which raises the question of why the authors of these studies didn't just do that.

>editors contributed to it during the review process.

Who are themselves gov't employees on salary at universities and national labs.

Besides all that, he is not dealing with the collected data itself. But with analysis from non-government-employees, done on that data.

If it is the data, or those people had access to things that are not public yet, then all this discussion is moot and he is right. I'd even sue them for my 2.5 for each article.

Not everything remotely related to the MSL mission is performed by NASA or US government employees. Non-US scientists cannot be employed directly by NASA due to citizenship requirements. NASA avoids cutting itself off from the world scientific community as a result by granting contract work to, or simply cooperating with, non-US scientists.

Indeed, some of the work "freed" here was performed by European scientists, using NASA data -- which is available to the public in the US and out -- but without a penny of US government funding. These works are certainly not in the public domain.

Most scientists would be happy to share their research. Just ask.

> Indeed, some of the work "freed" here was performed by European scientists, using NASA data -- which is available to the public in the US and out -- but without a penny of US government funding. These works are certainly not in the public domain.

I think most information-should-be-free advocates are under the assumption that work performed using public data should be public; i.e., that taxpayer-dollars transitively "infect" projects sponsored atop them with taxpayer-ownership, somewhat like the GPLv3 does.

Yes, a quick review of the papers shows what you say - the authors belong to a plethora of institutes and centers, American and otherwise.

NASA got the data and has made it available, yes? Further work using it is being done by third (fourth, fifth...) parties who feel their work would be most visible in a top-shelf journal like Science.

I'm all for liberation of data, and for scientific papers in particular having wide and free dissemination. We should really be working on alternative funding models for research and alternative business models for journals rather than calling out individual teams for putting their work where they think it will receive the most attention.

Yes, the data is free. One link for the calibrated data is:


If you really wanted to work with the data, you'd want to get in touch with the instrument team. At this relatively early stage, there will be quirks that will not be corrected for/documented. Poking around with the data is fine, but you might spend a lot of time on something that is a known instrumental artifact.

One caveat with this "free" data -- usually there is an embargo period (there was with MSL, something like 90 days). During that first 90 days, a few hundred people came to be resident at JPL where the mission is controlled. They all worked in a few large rooms there, largely on Mars time. So the first batch of papers (some of which are already published) are done by the instrument teams. And this is clearly not a level playing field. (The thing is, those teams worked hard on a lot of un-fun calibration and infrastructure-building.)

Other missions have much longer embargo periods (years in some cases), and some have effectively no embargo at all. It's partly about the culture of the discipline.

The work performed by European scientists was probably mainly funded by European taxpayers, and the same argument that American taxpayers should be able to access the work they fund can be applied to Europeans too. As an European taxpayer (and scientist, BTW), I think freeing this work from the paywalls is morally great, even though it's illegal. And paywalled academic journals should adapt or die.

There is no parallel between "works funded by American taxpayers" and "works funded by EU taxpayers". The un-copyright of works funded by American taxpayers comes from a specific exception in USA laws - there is no such statement in European legislation; so while ethically the situations may seem the same, legally they are very different.

The problem with vigilante justice is, the vigilante usually gets the wrong person.

These scientists don't work for NASA, most of them work for private institutes and some are based in Europe, the work is entitled to be copyrighted, and basically you're stealing it and giving it away for free.

I love science, I love space, I think Nasa's budget should be tripled (at the expense of a few less fighter jets). But these scientists didn't do anything wrong by publishing THEIR works (not Public Domain works) behind a pay wall.

Let's get the facts straight at least.

> These scientists don't work for NASA, most of them work for private institutes and some are based in Europe, ...

Yes. Also Canada.

> ... the work is entitled to be copyrighted, ...

You're heading in the right direction here, but copyright does not work quite that way in the modern world. No one copyrights (verb) things anymore. Rather, copyright exists in most works upon their creation. So, yes, these are copyrighted works. (And so is your HN comment, by the way.)

> ... and basically you're stealing it and giving it away for free.

The scientists already gave it away to the journal for free. Journals, which provide nothing in the modern world except prestige, now hold the copyright and charge for access. No one is stealing anything, since everyone who had a copy before still has a copy. Yes, the papers are now being given away free to the public, probably against the wishes of the copyright holder (the journal).

> But these scientists didn't do anything wrong by publishing THEIR works (not Public Domain works) behind a pay wall.

Close. The scientists assigned the copyright to the journal, for no payment (but for the prestige of it). The journal is the one publishing behind a paywall, and the journal is the one getting any money collected.

Now, to the real point: "wrong" is not the same as "illegal". Yes, the journal holds the copyright to the paper, and it is legally entitled to charge for access. But what about the moral issue? I funded this work. Me. My taxes paid for it. If you are a U.S. taxpayer, then you paid for it, too. And yet now I'm supposed to pay to see it? There's a problem there.

This would be illegal[1] if these guys were medical researchers funded by the NIH, which has a policy that publications coming out of projects they fund must be freely accessible.[2] It is not illegal here; I think it should be.

And one more thing that many people don't catch: the researchers would probably love to have their papers more accessible. They are not sending papers to pay-walled journals because they like limited access. They are doing it because these are the journals that give them prestigious publications. The journals can trade on their prestige to enforce conditions on the researchers, like limited access. No one likes this except the journals. If NASA made a policy that papers from their projects must be made freely available, then the journals would either have to allow it, or else stop publishing all NASA-based works. Experience strongly suggests that they would do the former.

[EDIT--One more quick note before the editing period closes: It appears the author of the post might not be clear on the distinction between researchers working on NASA projects and researchers doing projects using data that NASA has made available for anyone to use. I am primarily addressing the former situation here. However, what I said about the journals being the only ones with any interest in limited access, applies to academic researchers in general.]

[1] Or maybe not quite illegal, but rather against regulations. Almost but not quite the same thing.

[2] http://publicaccess.nih.gov/

It's not just prestige though, it's also legitimacy. Scientific journals have formal peer review and it is this process that is supposed to ensure that papers that get published aren't totally spurious. One might argue that NASA could be exempt from this process given its own reputation and level of accountability, but submitting articles to journals for peer review and publication is standard scientific practice.

The paywall is arguably just for business though, a lot of papers get put up on sites like arxiv pre-publication anyway.

I don't see much in the argument from the view of the taxpayer though. In the UK a lot of public funding goes in to research and the papers are largely behind paywalls - Graphene research for example. Now, if we had government subsidized peer review journals - I could definitely get behind that.

"Scientific journals have formal peer review and it is this process that is supposed to ensure that papers that get published aren't totally spurious"

Considering the fact that peer review is done by volunteers, I think this a pretty weak argument. At best you could argue that the publishers are organizing the review process, but even that is suspect -- scientists organize themselves pretty well.

Peer review is orthogonal to copyright issues. Journal publishers serve almost no purpose in the modern world, and the copyrights they hold on scientific articles are doing more to prevent the dissemination of knowledge than to promote scientific research.

This seems to prove too much. Either all scientists are irrational, or they get some real value out of the journals system.

The only value a scientist gets from publishing a journal article is another publication they can add to their CV. A long list of publications is important for any scientist who wants to get funding, and even grad students need to have that long list of publications on their CV if they hope to get a research job later in life. What the journal provides is its name, and nothing else -- because as I said, everything else that goes into a journal is done by volunteers.

Now, once upon a time, journals served a secondary purpose, which was to distribute scientific results on a global scale. Back then, there was no Internet, and printing enough copies of a journal to satisfy the world's needs required industrial equipment. Fortunately those days are done and over with, but unfortunately we are still dealing with the relics of that bygone age in the form of academic publishing companies. Worse, in fact, since today's publishers are far greedier and for more profiteering than many of the publishers of the past.

Really, were it not for copyright, we could cut publishers out of the equation without any ill effects and have a net gain for society by removing all paywalls from scientific articles.

See my post (GP of yours). What scientists get is the prestige of having an accepted article in one of the better journals. The more prestigious journals can then trade on that prestige to force concessions that hurt everyone but themselves and undermine the whole public-funding, knowledge-sharing system. The scientists do it because, often, there is tenure and/or promotion riding on it. Plenty of scientists want open access, but few want to risk their careers to push for it.

All (afaik) UK research councils now have an Open Access mandate. It's a bit of a mess, though, since they keep changing how/who's going to pay for it, and what level of Open Access they mandate. Practically, for physicists, this just means uploading your paper to arXiv.

Open Access is a more subtle economic argument than I think many people here are admitting, and you have to recognise the value-added that journals provide. There are experiments out there (e.g. post-publication peer review, free-floating editorial boards) trying to challenge the journal model, but I'm not going to presuppose that they're going to be more successful than pay-for OA journals.

So the argument is that:

(a) your taxes went to Nasa, who used them to collect interesting data

(b) other scientists who are not funded by the American taxpayer took that data and turned it into an interesting research paper, which probably took them months of actual work to write, get peer reviewed, and revise

(c) those scientists published their work in a journal which charges for access, which you claim they did for free

(d) part of that process means the journal owns the copyrights now

and therefore, because (a) is true, then you must be morally entitled to that work for free.

If that's the standard, if you went to American public school, and that school taught you to play guitar, does it make it right that all your music can be copied for free?

I think you're missing the part where the scientists that did the months of real work are not paid or funded in any way by NASA.

Should NASA insist that all research done off of it's data be open to the public? That's a different debate.

The point that you're missing is that the money from paying for the paper doesn't go to the scientists or even to the advancement of science, but to the publishing journal. The publishing journal that takes articles without paying authors and can hold their reputation hostage.

(a) Yes.

(b) This is more complicated. Most of those scientists actually are funded by the American taxpayer, through grants, but that is not what I was arguing about. As I explained elsewhere, I was speaking of NASA-affiliated projects, and I noted that the original poster did not appear to distinguish between these and projects in which some researchers had simply used data NASA released publicly. Regardless, all the work the researchers did is irrelevant, because they do not get any of the money from the journal paywall; that all goes to the journal publisher. The work the peer-reviewers did is also irrelevant. Peer review is done by unpaid volunteers, at no expense to the journal publisher. A journal publisher doesn't even have to pay someone to contact peer reviewers, as that work is done by journal editors, who are also unpaid volunteers.

(c) Yes. "They" refers to the scientists. Authors receive no money for journal publication.

(d) Yes. The journal publisher holds the copyright because the scientists signed a document that says so; not because of some general principle. Most journals require copyright assignment before publication.

Nothing here is between me and the scientists. Again, if I have to pay to get that article, the scientists do not get the money; the journal publisher does. There is no question of whether scientists deserve any money because of all their hard work; they don't get any money regardless.

The journal publisher is able to force paid access because of an antiquated arrangement that dates back to the days when journals did bring something to the table: typesetting work and equipment, help in the costly task of dissemination of knowledge, and being an important part of the archiving process. Today they bring only prestige, which matters only because of internal promotion and tenure decisions in the scientists' organizations.

All that has to happen to fix this is for research organizations to insist on free public availability. This benefits everyone except for parasites on the knowledge-dissemination process (journal publishers), who are currently able to extract money due to an outdated system.

Now, whether a private university should require open access to its research publications is something that is up to that organization; I wish they would, but I cannot insist. OTOH, I have no problem demanding that tax-supported granting agencies and tax-supported research organizations make such requirements. The NIH already does. NASA and the NSF and others need to do it too.

I don't see how this is "getting" the scientists. The only people being punished are those who legitimately profit off of the paywall... science journals. If anything, this will give the scientists more exposure, and thus higher chance of citations.

Hey! But why should the author miss an opportunity to justice rage on these chumps to inflate his own prestige and notoriety?

Well, I hope this doesn't come back and bite me too badly :l

I've mirrored the files here in case the original author decides to take them down:


Good. It really is up to the publication to prove that they hold the copyright.

By providing mirrors, it spreads the work further for the authors, lowering the chance that they would add their support to take it down.

Do you think this was a wise decision?

I am pursuing a PhD in the field of planetary sciences at the moment, and I can definitely vouch for the fact that there is a lot of discussion amongst the "younger folks" about the elistism of science, particularly for missions like Curiosity. The last few conferences I've been to (Division on Planetary Sciences, European Planetary Science Congress, American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting) have highlighted how worried publishers like Elsevier are about the changing attitudes in the field. I've been to a number of dedicated PR seminars at these conferences, where it is clear that the pitch is that publishers that require payment for the publication of scientific papers are not preventing taxpayers from gaining access to results, but are rather simply seeking appropriate compensation for their efforts in coordinating peer-review processes and bringing the results to the attention of the wider community.

I very openly tell my colleagues that change is necessary to make it clear that investment in missions like MSL, MESSENGER, JUICE etc. is for the mutual benefit of everyone. I think as a scientist, I have an OBLIGATION to communicate my results to those that make my work possible.

Open access journals are making some headway, but unfortunately, until the bigwigs in the field really make a clear statement of intent to shift from the traditional publishing houses to these new publishers, the status quo will be maintained.

I applaud the OP's efforts to make these results accessible to to everyone, and sincerely hope that there are no legal repercussions.

I work at a National Lab, and all my publications are available for free. However, that's not done through the website of the publishing journal, it's done through my Lab's portal.

The main requirement journals have is that we don't distribute the journal's marked-up final version. So we make them available as "Lab Reports" with our own typesetting, front cover, and so on.

Exactly, the first one via a simple google search on the first author's name:


So it is a conference paper, freely available now too. Looking that over, it seems it's that typical short dense sort. Conferences tend to limit the length of papers. Science being more general interest, I would expect that paper to have more prose, background info, and images.

The American taxpayer paid for the freaking rover without which no one can generate any research whatsoever. Thus we should be able to read the results without a paywall in the way.

Same can be said for a lot of things. The American taxpayer paid for the road on which you use to drive to work. Should you get no salary as a result?

If you think that the rover funding and the independent non-NASA, non-American scientists who spent months analyzing that data and coming up with their interpretations should be connected, you are entitled to think that. But they currently aren't.

Aaron Swartz would be proud of you.

NASA is not a government agency as such, and its work is not required to be released as public domain. Instead, it falls under the Federal Acquisition Regulations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Acquisition_Regulations

Which isn't to say that I disagree with making its findings available publicly. But the facts are worth noting.

Also, Science is run by, um, the AAAS, which is "an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association"

Couldn't the membership just have a vote to make Science go open access already?

To be fair, it is the norm in the scientific community to publish research in Journals... and while the Journals make money off it they do provide some level of editorial standards.

What would have been the alternative here, self-publishing? I suppose that would be possible for NASA, but it would be highly unprecedented. And besides, like the top comment says, some of these papers aren't actually done by NASA scientists, but others using NASA's data.

Journals (that is, the publishers) do not provide editorial standards. Editorial boards provide editorial standards.

This is an important distinction, because while journals make money (ideally), editorial boards do not make money. They are pro bono.

The services a journal's publisher provides are largely (1) possible copy-editing (2) management and workflow tools (3) paper publication and electronic distribution and archiving and (4) access to an important brand name ("Science", or "PAMI"). Historically these have been important services, but whether they will continue to be is something that every research community has to decide soon. There are a variety of alternative journal business models, such as those found in JAIR, JMLR, PLOS, etc.

"while the Journals make money off it they do provide some level of editorial standards"

Quite a few journals have volunteer editors and volunteer reviewers; publishers are contributing almost nothing to the quality of papers or of research.

> Quite a few journals have volunteer editors and volunteer reviewers ....

In my experience, all of them do. That is, all of the academic journals.

Make it into a rule that anything funded with govt money must be dual published: an open access version, and a journal version that helps the scientists' CVs

The usual counter-argument is "the journals won't take that, they want exclusive rights or nothing!", but given that a lot of research is funded directly or indirectly with public funds (i.e. a grant or just working at a public university), then that argument seems weak

The correct thing to do would have been to publish the article as open access. That means nobody has to pay to read it. It costs a small extra fee from the authors to the journal to make it open access forever.

I don't know about other fields, but in physics, the "small extra fee" is $1700 - $2700.[1] Many researchers prefer to spend this money on actual research. Fortunately, most physics journals also allow the author to retain publishing rights (just not on the final typeset version). So, sites like arxiv.org provide a better alternative. Free-to-reasearcher publishing in a prestigious journal plus free-to-researcher-and-public publishing elsewhere.

[1] http://publish.aps.org/edannounce/CC-launch-press-release

>Many researchers prefer to spend this money on actual research.

Compared to the cost to license journal access from Elsevier and the other parasites 3k per published item is cheap. The problem being that it comes from your grant funds instead of the Uni's general fund, or the Dep't funds.

When you compare that small extra fee to the "color figure fee" (for Science, I think it's ~$700 for the first +$200 per figure thereafter), the difference starts to become negligible compared to just publishing in an OA journal.

Almost all publishers allow authors to distribute their own versions (not using journal typesetting) and government contractors (in the agencies I'm familiar with) are required to include the following clause on submissions.

""" The U.S. Government retains for itself, and others acting on its behalf, a paid-up nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in said article to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the Government. """

After a paper is accepted, the journals sends a copyright assignment form. The legal office at the lab will then neuter the assignment by crossing out sections and inserting permissions before signing it. The journals are not in a position to object. Universities should emulate this practice.

Coincidently, I had a paper published in Science last week (coincidently using NASA facilities, but do note that I am not based in the US). Science allowed me to put a copy of the paper on the free-to-access preprint site, arxiv.org. This wasn't the final typeset and corrected version of the paper, but a version of the submitted proof.

These authors could have done something similar, though there are some differences in practices between the different scientific sub-communities. In some subjects, virtually every paper is posted to arxiv.org. Earth sciences appears to be one of those subjects where they don't do that.

> The only ambiguity in the case of these Curiosity papers is that not all of the authors are US Government employees, and thus the work is, I am told “co-owned” by the authors.

Amazingly, this is an almost exact re-hashing of the debates on IP that occurred between Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker in the 19th century. Tucker presented Spooner with a thought experiment: If two people should co-invent, how should the property be allocated. Spooner, of course, said 50-50. Then Tucker rejoined - what if one of the co-inventors should choose to give the patent freely, does that impinge on the property rights of the one who does not so choose (if you choose to disallow the scenario, does the holding of the patent impinge on the property right of the one who would choose to give it away)?

God bless you, Michael Eisen. May the force be with you

Links to the PDF documents have been made available by the MSL mission.


These are published in a manner that is consistent with Science's publication rules.

As an emerging space power, I believe this campaign needs to get some media coverage in China.


In case you are not aware, the author's father committed suicide: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1282

I have no particular point here, but I just feel that any discussion of your comment should take place with an awareness of this fact.

ah. was not aware. now i feel like douche. will delete original because of ignorance.

way to go

Fuck man, let NASA have the $20. I understand the consternation but of all the agencies who need money... just let people pay for it.

We aren't talking about pirating lil'wayne's next album or someone who has too much money.

NASA doesn't see a penny of that $20, which is the problem; it goes to the publishers of Science (the AAAS, which is, to be fair, a non-profit organization). While musicians don't get much from the average record sale, scientists get exactly nothing.


You've got the wrong AAAS.

The one that publishes Science magazine is the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Their journal Science is actually a pretty good value -- I think the paper copy is about $140 per year, 52 issues of nerdy goodness.

The current president of AAAS (!= editor of Science) is Bill Press, of Numerical Recipes fame. Not a phony, by any stretch.

You're correct, I removed the comment.

> While musicians don't get much from the average record sale, scientists get exactly nothing.

actually, that is exactly true. Scientists make $0 off of record sales. :D

yeah... that's lame. NASA should take a cut. in fact, new decree.. all sales from academic papers should go to NASA. agreed?

Good grief no. They might build another Space Shuttle; bigger and stupider than the last one. I know it sucks, but let's wait the bureaucrats who're in charge now out for just a few more years.

since when does HN support downvotes?

Anyone with karma high enough can - and should - downvote comments that detract from the overall quality of the discussion.

Your karma is close to that point. When you get there, use it wisely.

FWIW, I think it must be based on the average karma, because my profile is older and I have more karma than wheelerwj but I have no downvote capacity.

Also, I can't even imagine the amount of contributions that are required to reach the amount of karma you have.

It's total karma, but the line keeps rising as HN grows. I've only gained them when my karma reached 500.

Errm, I think the commenter may be farther away than you believe...the threshold for downvoting is at least 500 (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3782174).

Since the proverbial dawn of time. You have to have reached a certain karma threshold in order to have access to downvoting, though.

Think of the bigger picture. Is it okay to monetarily starve one of the US remaining prominent scientific bodies because "they can always just charge money for their papers"?

Why reward ugly hacks when it's much cheaper and better to solve the root problem?

I don't disagree, but solving the root problem is way off in the future.

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