Open Access Spreads

As the Obama administration continues to hash out its open access policy for federal research, California weighs its own for state-funded research and development.

April 29, 2013

A bill in the California legislature would require state-funded research to be made public free of charge within a year of its publication.

If it passes, the bill would create an open access policy for California's state-funded research similar to a policy announced earlier this year by the Obama administration. The federal policy, which is not yet finalized, would apply to most federally supported non-defense research. California is not the only state moving to make public the published research it helps to fund; Illinois is weighing a similar proposal.

While it’s unclear how much research California currently pays for each year, it's likely nearly as much as or more than any other state. A 2008 study -- which looked at funding levels in the years before the recession and the state's budget crisis-- found California put roughly $350 million into state-funded research and development. The study by the California Council on Science and Technology found the state was funding research important to the state but not funded at sufficient levels by other sources, including energy research related to climate change. The state's Institute for Regenerative Medicine is also in the seventh year of a decade-long, $3 billion project to fund stem cell research.

The bill’s chances are unclear. All of its sponsors in the Democratic-majority California Assembly are Republicans. A staffer for its lead sponsor, Assemblyman Brian Nestande, said the lawmaker is trying to find Democrats to help advance the bill. In debates on the topic in Washington, Democrats have been among the supporters of open access, and the opposition has largely come from some publishers.

On Friday, the bill won formal support from the University of California system, which houses many of the state's top researchers.

"Scholars at the University of California have a vested interest in ensuring that their work reaches the widest possible audience, including members of the public whose tax dollars support the university’s research," UC legislative director Adrian Diaz said in a letter to the head of the state Assembly's Accountability and Administrative Review Committee. "Unfortunately the increasing cost of journal subscriptions in recent years often acts to restrict access to research results. This increasing restriction on the dissemination of research results runs counter to the spirit in which UC faculty, researchers and students undertake their scholarly activity."

The bill is the idea of Annabelle Kleist, a science fellow in Nestande’s office who recently earned a Ph.D. in plant biology from the University of California at Davis. She became interested in the open access movement after she published her work on invasive species.  She began to get e-mail from people who were interested in the research and might be able to use her work but could not read it without ponying up for access to her journal article.

“Not being able to work together collaboratively because they couldn’t access the information was a problem as we’re trying to solve major problems in California,” Kleist said in a telephone interview.

She said the same is true of doctors and dentists who she said should have access to the latest information but would face the expense of subscribing to journals in order to get it, despite the fact their tax dollars may have helped fund the underlying research.

Kleist’s goals aligned with Republican Nestande’s push for transparency in the state, said Nestande’s legislative director Nanette Farag. So, he introduced the bill.

The initial draft of the bill would have required information to be released within six months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal. This drew criticism from the UC Academic Senate and the UC president’s office. Both said the six-month period may be too short and did not conform to the Obama administration’s expected one-year embargo before material would become open access. The faculty and administration argued different embargoes based on funding sources could create a variety of confusing compliance requirements

Nestande has since amended the bill to lengthen the embargo period to one year.

Michael Eisen, a Berkeley biologist and co-founder of the open access publisher Public Library of Science, has spoken out against the academic senate’s initial position. He said faculty support of any embargo means they are supportive of an "economically destructive system" that forces libraries to pay for journals that feature taxpayer-funded research. He said faculty are clinging to an old publishing model because their careers can depend on navigating it successfully. 

“It’s just so disappointing that UC faculty would be conservative in this way,” Eisen said.

Still, he agreed a number of overlapping open access periods could be confusing -- as many as one for each state, plus federal guidelines, which themselves could vary by agency depending on how the Obama administration finalizes its policy later this year.

“I do think it could get confusing if everybody has a different embargo,” Eisen said in a telephone interview. “So, yes, I think there should be a universal embargo. I just happened to think it should be zero.”

Robert Powell, the chair of the UC Academic Senate, said the body has yet to come up with a blanket open access policy and its earlier letter declining to support the California open access bill was not a sign of a broader policy but simply its position on one piece of pending legislation, which has since been amended.

“Our position on this was on the details of the bill, not some broad public access policy,” Powell said. “We were asked to respond to a bill.”

The California bill comes as battle lines are being drawn nationally over the Obama administration's proposal. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Research Libraries recently released a letter urging the Obama administration to adopt a uniform one-year embargo for new data disclosures required by the administration's directive. The administration has suggested it could set different open access embargoes for each of the 15 or so agencies covered by its open access policy. 

Publishers are interested in having different embargo requirements for different agencies. A spokeswoman for the publishers' trade group also recently wrote an op-ed to the editors of an Illinois news website that had editorialized in favor of the open access bill pending in that state. Her letter outlines some of the publishers' concerns about state-level efforts, including the idea that, "Taxpayers may pay for research but they don’t pay for publishers’ significant investments to ensure the public record is sound, accurate and safe."


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