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White House says government-funded research should be more public, but critics want more

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Research paid for by taxpayers should be free and open to the public. That basic concept is behind a new White House memo issued earlier today ordering federal agencies that give out $100 million or more in research funding every year to make the resulting scientific papers "freely available to the public within one year of publication." But the White House's order is more flexible than it seems at first, and some advocates of open access research say it's mostly lip service.

freely available to the public within one year of publication

The order was issued Thursday by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in response to an online public petition calling for free access to research, signed by 65,000. "The logic behind enhanced public access is plain," said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy," in a statement announcing the new order.

Currently, many federally funded research papers are accessible in their final form only through paid subscription journals and paywalled websites, such as the JSTOR database and Lexis Nexis. The new plan would make sure that these papers were available for free outside those journals within a year, potentially depriving the journals of revenue from readers who are willing to wait for the free versions. But journal lobbying groups applauded the White House plan as sensible and "balanced."

“We support the [White House] OSTP’s compatible goals of broadening access while preserving the high-quality, peer-reviewed articles on which the science community and the public rely," said Tom Allen, President and CEO, of the American Association of Publishers, in a statement. The AAP represents JSTOR's parent company, Ithaka.

Decidedly more complex than it seems

That's because the actual White House memo is decidedly more complex than Holdren's statement makes it out to be: It give the agencies six months, until August, to come up with plans to make the research they support public within a year after that. It "provides the flexibility to make changes in the future," including giving agencies the ability to extend the period of time that research can stay embargoed, out of the public domain. Agencies may also cite national and "economic" security as reasons to keep research out of the public eye.

Those exceptions have some activists, including University of California, Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, claiming the White House sold out to the publishing companies that profit of publicly funded research.

"My concerns are that it's completely lame," Eisen told The Verge in an email, after taking to Twitter to lambaste the memo. "The embargoed 12 months are the most important period of a papers life. And there is NO reason to allow this embargo except that the publishers don't want it," he added.

"My concerns are that it's completely lame."

In addition, the White House's open access memo repeatedly states that the federal agencies only have to open their research to the public "to the extent feasible," which gives exceptions for "U.S. national, homeland, and economic security."

"They [The White House] should have just said 'You want a grant from the federal government, you have to make any publications arising from these funds immediately freely available,'" Eisen offered as an alternative memo. "It's very simple."

Still, whatever one thinks of the order, the White House clearly saw the need to address increased calls for public access to scientific research. Those calls have gained new attention in the wake of the suicide of open access advocate and programmer Aaron Swartz in January, just months before he was due to stand trail on federal charges of computer fraud for downloading 4.8 million articles from the paid JSTOR database without proper access.

The Verge
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