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Open Access and Interventionism

February 9, 2012

After soliciting publishers and higher education groups last fall to comment on the government’s proper role in regulating the availability of federally funded research, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on Jan. 30 posted all 377 responses on its website, reviving the debate over open access broadly and stoking controversy in one discipline in particular.

The question of whether research funded by federal agencies — such as the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities — should be made available for John Q. Taxpayer to view without an expensive journal subscription has been widely debated in recent years. The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, which would have compelled federal grant recipients to make their research available for free on the Web within six months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal, won support from dozens of research university provosts and liberal arts college presidents before languishing in a Senate subcommittee. In April 2010 a group of House legislators tried to resuscitate the bill, but that version never made it out of subcommittee either.

So open-access advocates had to settle for a provision in the American COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 — which, according to the OSTP, instructs the office to collect “public input on long-term preservation of, and public access to, the results of federally funded research, including peer-reviewed scholarly publications.”

The open comment period ended last month. Much of the feedback came from two camps: libraries and universities, on the one hand; and scholarly associations and the companies that publish their peer-reviewed journals, on the other. A casual survey of the letters suggests that the feedback largely breaks along familiar lines — librarians arguing for quicker and easier access to research, and publishers offering suggestions for better access while discouraging measures that might threaten their subscription revenues.

The White House was particularly interested to hear feedback on the appropriate terms of an embargo-based model, where the government withholds publicly funded research for a certain amount of time. This model is currently used by the National Institutes of Health, which requires grantees to make their research freely available one year after it is first published.

Embargoes on federally funded research should be “as short as possible,” wrote a trio of officials at Duke. “…[I]t is probably best to allow authors themselves to determine appropriate embargo periods, or to permit immediate public access,” they wrote.

Others argued that embargoes should be, so to speak, permanent. “There are no ‘appropriate’ embargo periods,” contended Alice Meadows, the associate director of client development at the publisher Wiley-Blackwell. “Any embargo period is a dramatic shortening of the period of copyright protection afforded all publishers.”

While scholars might get government grants to do research, “Peer-reviewed papers are not the result of the Federal Government’s investment,” wrote Meadows for Wiley-Blackwell.

“Wiley believes that publishers — and learned societies — themselves should determine the business models under which their publications operate,” Meadows elsewhere argued.

Anthropology and Access

A letter sent by the executive director of one such “learned society,” the American of Anthropological Association (AAA), generated some discontent from some of the more vocal open-access advocates in its rank-and-file. (This sentence has been updated since publication.)

“We know of no research that demonstrates a problem with the existing system for making the content of scholarly journals available to those who might benefit from it,” writes Bill Davis, the executive director of AAA, which publishes 22 peer-reviewed journals, all of which currently have pay walls.

“Mandating open access to such property without just compensation and lawful procedural limitations constitutes, in our view, an unconstitutional taking of private property — copyright material — an expropriation without fair market compensation."

Daniel Lende, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, zeroed in on this last statement in a blog post for the Public Library of Science, a prominent publisher of open-access journals.   

“This statement from the Association that canceled an annual meeting to stand in solidarity with the striking workers of the conference hotel?” Lende wrote. “This statement from an Association whose members have fought and fought these past decades to get better recognition of indigenous rights? This statement from an Association that consistently offers one of the few prominent public critiques of the neoliberal model? This statement stinks.”

Jeremy Trombley, a first-year anthropology doctoral student at the University of Maryland, pledged on his own blog to publish only in open-access journals, even if that makes his resume less impressive to prospective employers when he graduates.

“We are the one discipline that truly works with people...” wrote Trombley. “How can we honestly continue that tradition if our publications are hidden from view and locked behind university library [barriers]?”

Four days after Davis’s letter was made public, the executive board of the AAA released a statement that seems designed to appease members who might have been rubbed the wrong way by the director’s comments.

The board last week adopted a motion “acknowledging the Association’s commitment to ‘a publications program that disseminates the most current anthropological research, expertise, and interpretation to its members, the discipline, and the broader society,’ but also the need for a sustainable publication strategy, and building on the Association’s support for a variety of publishing models,” according to a statement on its website.

“The AAA opposes any Congressional legislation which, if it were enacted, imposes a blanket prohibition against open access publishing policies by all federal agencies,” it continued.

Davis, the executive director, told Inside Higher Ed it is unfair of critics to accuse the AAA of resisting open access in the interest of self-preservation. “Among a segment of the particularly vocal members on this issue, there is an assumption that somehow the organization is anti-open access, and that’s just wrong,” he said.

“There are too many people within this organization working on this issue to say that we’re just trying to preserve the status quo,” he said. Davis pointed specifically to the AAA’s permanent Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing — which he expects will eventually recommend open-access pilot programs for some of the association’s journals. “I do not know what our publishing program is going to look like in five or 10 years,” Davis added, “but I know it’s not going to look like what it looks like now.”

Deborah Nichols, an anthropology professor at Dartmouth University and chair of that committee, indicated that such experiments might take some time to get going. “At this point, CFPEP is beginning to lay out a range of scenarios including open access but this will take time given the complexity of AAA's publishing program and the importance of it for the discipline and association members,” Nichols wrote in an e-mail.

Alex Golub, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and a vocal open access advocate, said he is not holding his breath.

 “I think only the most politically naïve person says, ‘We’re going to form a committee to solve something,’ and think it’s actually going to get done,” Golub said in an interview. The AAA is not evil, Golub says, it just does not have the capacity to drive any significant change. “They want to do the right thing,” he says, “but they never will.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.
 

 

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