Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Stronger, Better--even FASTR? The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act

On Valentine’s Day, the Fair Access to Science andTechnology Research Act [FASTR] was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.  FASTR is a version of the previously introduced Federal Research Public Access Act (three times before), which failed to become law.  FASTR requires that federally funded scientific research in papers is made available to the public after six months.   Apparently, the agencies responsible for funding the research are also charged with ensuring the publications are accessible to the public free of charge.   This seems like a good idea—the public funds the research through taxes so why shouldn’t the public get free access to the research results?  And, there are many supporters (Electronic Frontier Foundation, Infojustice, PLOS, the Associationof College and Research Libraries, American Library Association, Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, CreativeCommons, Greater Western Library Alliance, Public Knowledge, Public Library of Science and SPARC).  But, there is also opposition by the Association of American Publishers.  Why the opposition?  Well, the Association of American Publishers released some comments in 2008 against the National Institutes of Health’s public access policy to research results after one year (which is somewhat similar to FASTR):

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy seeks to address a challenge or problem that has not been proven to exist. In doing so, the NIH policy introduces legal conflicts with an author’s and publisher’s copyright and undermines intellectual property rights and the economic incentive of publishers and rights holders. The policy makes their copyrighted material available without compensation in online sites, for dissemination to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Such mandatory open access erodes and disrupts the proven, balanced economic model that supports and sustains journals as dynamic and effective vehicles for promoting scientific communication for centuries. It removes the substantial safeguards that journal publishers take to protect their journals from unauthorized misappropriation.

North American-based science and technology publishers account for upwards of 40% of all peer-reviewed scientific research papers published annually. Therefore, mandatory public access policies will disproportionately impact U.S. publishers. By severely restricting the scope of protection for a critical class of copyrighted works, the NIH policy deprives both authors and publishers of their free choice to use the business model best suited for disseminating content and could ultimately reduce incentives to make substantial investments in peer reviewing, publishing, and disseminating scientific research.

At the same time, the primary beneficiaries will largely be non-US entities who neither fund nor invest in research but will have free access to the information in the copyrighted journal articles. U.S. publishers have already gathered evidence that companies in China and India are planning to resell and distribute without authorization articles downloaded from NIH's PubMed Central database — material produced by U.S publishers at their own expense.

So, most of the argument seems to be a little protectionist.  If we are concerned about the impact on US publishers, we should be able to obtain a rough estimate of the impact of the policy—several years have passed since the policy has been in effect.  Indeed, SPARC reports that:

In some disciplines, freely accessible online archives have been proven to boost journal readership, not detract from it. In physics, for example, where nearly 100% of new articles are freely available from birth in the open-access archive created more than a decade ago with US Department of Energy funding, subscription-based journals have continued to thrive. In a report to Congress on the results of its Public Access Policy, NIH reported that it “has no evidence to indicate that the Policy has had any impact on peer review.”

Just as newspaper articles today are read in print form, on their publishers’ Web sites, and in aggregations such as LexisNexis®, potential readers of publicly funded journal articles are well-served by having them accessible in many forms and contexts for differing uses. Even before the Internet, publishers flourished at the same time public libraries provided citizens with free access to their publications.

But, there are other arguments, for example, there is a concern with taking away the publisher’s role in the peer review process.  However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a quick and cogent argument against that and then some:

[T]he traditional system . . . gives journal publishers substantial control over access to academic work, even though they don't pay a dime in exchange to the authors who do the research, the peer-reviewers who vet the research, or the institutions that help make it possible. Those publishers will doubtless oppose the bill, but it is their own decision to continually raise the bar to access that is driving support for the legislation. For example, subscription prices have outpaced inflation by over 250 percent in the past 30 years, forcing university libraries to pick and choose between journal subscriptions. The result: students and citizens have difficulty accessing information they need; professors have a harder time reviewing and teaching the state of the art; and cutting-edge research is often hidden behind paywalls.

SPARC also states, in response to a question whether FASTR would harm peer review, that:

No. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act contains two key provisions that protect journals and the peer review process:
A delay of up to six months in requiring free access to the articles(versus immediate access for journal readers).

Inclusion in the public archive of the author’s final manuscript rather than the publisher’s formatted, paginated version preferred for citation purposes.
And, that leaves us to the Association of American Publisher’s final argument: “It would require federal agencies to undertake extensive, open-ended work already being performed successfully by the private sector. It would add significant, unspecified, ongoing costs to those agencies’ budgets in the midst of ongoing federal deficit reduction efforts.”  What do you think of that argument? 

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about FASTR and how it will impact faculty, please see SPARC’s helpful FAQ site here and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and  Society’s Harvard Open Access Project page here. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The protectionist views of the Association of American Publishers are interesting. Scientific research is moving from being a unipolar (US dominated) to multipolar world, and that results in a slight loss confidence. The solution is of course for everyone to publish free articles, but that requires a more collaborative world, and probably the US is not yet well versed in setting up such agreements where its negotiating position is not as strong as it used to be.