Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter



The Policy Debate on Access to Research Heats Up

“We are convinced that our universities distinguish themselves, and achieve excellence, by their willingness to open their gates and share their most important assets — the ideas and innovative solutions they create each day.”
From Values and Scholarship, an essay by eleven research university provosts, published February 23, 2012, in Inside Higher Ed.

The past six months have been an interesting and active time in the national debate over access to academic research. A few of the highlights (and low points) are summarized below.

In November, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a Request for Information soliciting public input on public access to the results of federally funded research, including peer-reviewed scholarly publications. The Boston College University Libraries submitted a detailed response, recommending that all such articles be required to be made publically available as soon as possible. (All responses are available here.)

On December 16, the Research Works Act (RWA) was introduced in Congress. The bill (HR 3699), co-sponsored by Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), sought to repeal the open-access policy at the NIH and block similar policies at other federal agencies. Currently the NIH policy requires that all articles resulting from research funded by the NIH be deposited within one year of publication in the open access PubMed Central.

Initially, the Association of American Publishers came out in support of the bill. Many academic publishers (MIT Press, University of California Press, Penn State University Press, and others) broke ranks and voiced opposition. Elsevier, often cited as a publisher practicing predatory bundling and pricing, publically supported the RWA.

On January 21, Timothy Gowers, Fields medalist and mathematician at the University of Cambridge, made public his longstanding boycott of Elsevier: “It occurs to me that it might help if there were a website somewhere, where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically.”

Within days, The Cost of Knowledge was up, and as of February 28, 7570 researchers had become signatories, vowing not to publish in, referee or edit Elsevier journals. That number stands at 9598 on April 12. Several Boston College faculty members are signatories.

On February 9, Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA) introduced bipartisan legislation that directs federal agencies to encourage open public access to federally funded scientific research. The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) would require federal agencies with an extramural research budget of $100 million or more to make federally-funded research available for free online access by the general public, no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

On February 23, eleven Provosts of large research universities published a letter in support of open access and FRPAA, and in opposition to RWA. They outline an agenda for change:

Some examples of how we might do more to influence campus behaviors include:

  • Encouraging faculty members to retain enough rights in their published intellectual property that they can share it with colleagues and students, deposit it in open access repositories, and repurpose it for future research.
  • Ensuring that promotion and tenure review are flexible enough to recognize and reward new modes of communicating research outcomes.
  • Ensuring that our own university presses and scholarly societies are creating models of scholarly publishing that unequivocally serve the research and educational goals of our universities, and/or the social goals of our communities.
  • Encouraging libraries and faculty to work together to assess the value of purchased or licensed content, and the appropriate terms governing its use.

On February 27, Elsevier withdrew its support for the RWA and announced price cuts for mathematics journals.

The same day, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the bill was dead, quoting the bill’s co-sponsors:

“As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open-access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future," the Issa-Maloney statement said. "The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid. This conversation needs to continue, and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate.”

On March 19, a Congressional briefing on FRPAA resulted in 24 new bipartisan sponsors of the bill, and on March 29, the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight (of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology) held a hearing titled Examining Public Access and Scholarly Publication Interests.

Stuart Shieber, faculty director of Harvard University’s Office for Scholarly Communication testified and concluded his argument for open access to taxpayer-funded research:

The federal agencies and science policies that this committee oversees have led to knowledge breakthroughs of the most fundamental sort — in our understanding of the physical universe, in our ability to comprehend fundamental biological processes, and, in my own field, in the revolutionary abilities to transform and transmit information. Open access policies build on these information technology breakthroughs to maximize the return on the taxpayers’ enormous investment in that research, and magnify the usefulness of that research. They bring economic benefits that far exceed the costs. The NIH has shown one successful model, which could be replicated at other funding agencies, as envisioned in the recently re-introduced bipartisan Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA). Providing open access to the publicly-funded research literature — amplifying the “diffusion of knowledge” — will benefit researchers, taxpayers, and every person who gains from new medicines, new technologies, new jobs, and new solutions to longstanding problems of every kind

The issues are complex and the argument has been contentious. More testimony is available, and the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, of which the Boston College University Libraries are a member, provides resources to support the bill. We will continue to report new developments in Scholarly Communication News@BC.

Jane Morris
Scholarly Communications Librarian