It’s been a long time coming, but last week the Obama administration issued a directive ordering 19 different federal agencies to develop plans for making their research available to anyone under open-access standards, after a twelve-month embargo. The directive applies to agencies with intramural research budgets of more than $100 million, and requires them to come up with policies and OA plans within six months. This is a significant triumph because we’re talking about tens of billions of dollars of scientific and scholarly research.
In other words, the floodgates are opening! U.S. taxpayers – and the rest of the world – will soon be able to read and use most federally funded research for free. They will no longer have to pay exorbitant fees to commercial publishers (who were given copyright control over the research for free) -- or to belong to the knowledge elite who have the privileged ("free") access to the research via the universities with which they are affiliated.
This is a moment to savor. It has been twelve years since the Budapest Open Access Initiative, a 2001 declaration that urged scholars, scientists and publishers to make their research freely available online. And it’s been seven years since the widely emulated open access journal PLoS One (Public Library of Science), was founded, in 2006. There have been countless other skirmishes and battles in the larger movement to make research and scholarship available under OA terms. (Here is a nice ten-year overview of the movement written by Melissa Hagemann of the Open Society Institute in 2012.)
The White House, never eager to puts its neck out too far, clearly saw the long-term trendlines and the growing popularity of OA norms. The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz – who was aggressively prosecuted for trying to make millions of JSTOR research articles openly available – surely helped dramatize the public mood about OA even further. Finally, an OA petition at the White House website garnered 65,000 signatures, far more than the 25,000 needed to trigger an official White House response (the bar for triggered a White House response has since been raised to 100,000 signatures).
The National Institute for Health pioneered OA requirements in 2008, which predictably spurred wider adoption of OA norms in many fields of medical research. It’s really an unassailable policy. As the New York Times opined in an editorial, “We Paid for the Research. So Let’s See It.” Of course, major commercial publishers of scientific research have stoutly resisted OA requirements with all sorts of half-baked rationales – and their clout tended to have more sway over the U.S. Congress than simple fairness.
Which reminds me of Peter Suber’s recent blog post reminding us that OA standards are not yet a statutory requirement; the White House directive is only an executive branch requirement. So a number of people recently introduced bipartisanly supported legislation in Congress – FASTR, or Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act – which would mandate OA publication of federal research for eleven federal agencies.
Beyond making OA statutory, there is the larger issue of setting some higher, more ambitious goals for the OA movement. Consider this interesting essay by British OA advocate Peter Murray-Rust, who wonders about the adequacy of "openness" in a world of grossly unequal resources. Murray-Rust aspires for OA to reach out beyond the academy, to normal citizens; to find ways to reduce journal prices more generally; to assure the re-use of scholarly output (which is not necessarily possible with OA works unless the least restrictive Creative Commons licenses are used); and to change the practices of science so that it is not dependent upon publishers to validate what’s worthy of attention.
All in all, however, the White House directive is a milestone for the OA movement that should be seen as a serious, long-awaited achievement. Time to celebrate!