Public access to scientific research endorsed by White House

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The White House responded last week to the petition: Increasing Public Access to the Results of Scientific Research. It was posted to the We the People petition site and got 65,704 signatures (the minimum required is 25,000).

Notable excerpts:

The Obama Administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for.

The logic behind enhanced public access is plain. We know that scientific research supported by the Federal Government spurs scientific breakthroughs and economic advances when research results are made available to innovators. Policies that mobilize these intellectual assets for re-use through broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth. That’s why the Obama Administration is committed to ensuring that the results of federally-funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community.

Moreover, this research was funded by taxpayer dollars. Americans should have easy access to the results of research they help support.

To this end, John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, issued a memorandum on Friday, Feb 22,
directing US Federal agencies:

...with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publicly available free of charge within 12 months after original publication.

The Administration is committed to ensuring that:

...the direct results of federally funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community. Such results include peer-reviewed publications and digital data.

This policy for all Federal Agencies is inspired by the success of the NIH Public Access Policy. In addition to addressing access to publications, the memorandum also:

...requires that agencies start to address the need to improve upon the management and sharing of scientific data produced with Federal funding.

And adds:

Going forward, wider availability of scientific data will create innovative economic markets for services related to data curation, preservation, analysis, and visualization, among others.

This is a great step towards using openess to further the goals of scientific research and to benefit the public who has funded it.

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Luis Ibáñez works as Senior Software Engineer at Google Inc in Chicago.


I've been saying this for 30 years. Research funded by gov't money should be public information. Instead, such information is effectively only available to those with access to the Ivory towers (such as university libraries), or those with a lot of money (so they can buy the articles or subscribe to the private journals that publish them). It has always been a problem.

Under rules that have been in place for years, all scientific data collected as part of a federal grant are available to anyone after three years. The researcher(s) who put their blood, sweat, and tears into obtaining a grant and collecting the data were previously granted exclusive rights to the data for that period of time. (No, I am not a scientist who has received these funds. ;-) )

The actual problem always lay in having an easy way to disseminate those data after the three year period expired. Until recently, there were no central repositories where interested researchers or the general public could go to get these data. I know of one such website now, at least partially funded by the National Science Foundation and Columbia University. I'm sure there are more, but I'm not familiar with them. Here is the link to that site:

A research scientist can provide raw data, trillions of bits of it. But a great effort goes into analyzing it, summarizing it, peer-reviewing it, and putting it into a nicely formatted, human-readable document (at least readable if you have a Ph.D.:-) That "research" effort is also typically funded by gov't money. But it seems that those usable documents are always "owned" by the journals that publish them.

Of course, if your own research can use the raw data, great. But if you are working in a different area or don't know what the data mean (because it is obfuscated or it might simply be tables of numbers), the raw data may not be interesting.

I don't know the full rules, but I do believe that in order to get the published articles, you must have access to the Ivory Tower or have a lot of money to pay the publishers for a copy.

The high fee, I believe, is a deliberate method to discourage a "legitimate", paying customer from simply posting the "purchased" copy on the Internet or otherwise sharing it with others. The money goes to line the pockets of the publishing company executitves. That money is not used to pay the author nor to replenish the government money that went into paying for the reseach. That is fraud, plain and simple.

I believe that all government documents (with some exceptions) should be freely and easily available. This includes not only legislation, court orders, traffic tickets, regional planning surveys, property deeds; but also government-funded scientific reseach documents. And not after three years of waiting, nor after an FOI request is approved ... but easily and as soon as it is "published".

That is not socialism ... or me wanting stuff for free. That is the way of democracy and open government. Any other way is fraud.

Sorry about the soap-box speech, but this has bothered me for a long time (and you can tell I am passionate about this topic).

One basic principle of the scientific method that I teach my kids is that sharing of information (data, results, procedures, conclusions, ways to improve) is fundamental and essential.

I use the "cold fusion" example of where the scientific method failed in large part because the investigators refused to share some of the information (because I believe they hoped to monetize the effect they thought they saw). So, others were unable to reproduce their results because of the big mystery in how to generate the results, it was not science Pons and Fleischmann were doing. They were doing something, but it wasn't science. (How much gov't funding were they given to do that non-science?)

Anyway, limiting the publically-funded results only to the elite or well-connected is akin to saying only the Aristocracy can participate in science. What the rest of us get are boiled-down, public relations messages (i.e., the "good news" of the "important work" that the scientists are doing as they hope to get continued government financial support). (Fill in here all the non-science going on under the name of research with the subject of anthropogenic climate change.)

How can I tell my students that communication and openness in the scientific method are essential to its success when we have such an abysmal system in place.

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