February 28, 2013 - 9:10pm
I have a friend who is tough-minded, outspoken, and perennially skeptical. She’s not a pushover, and she’s not the least bit sentimental. But last week, with the stroke of a pen, the president reduced her to tears.
Much of her professional life has been spent pushing the cause of access to knowledge up a steep hill, fighting inertia among scholar-authors and malign neglect from fellow librarians, who saw providing information by writing lots of checks as the library’s only true mission. She had grown a hard shell, having been disappointed too often. But the February 22 directive from the Whitehouse to federal agencies that research resulting from tax-funded research will in future be open to the public was such unexpected and wonderful news that she wept in public.
The response to the We the People petition that over 65,000 of us signed was better than I ever expected. Though some are critical of the provision that gives publishers up to a year-long embargo on published research, there are aspects of the response that go beyond what I expected, including the inclusion of metadata to go with the publications and public access to data sets related to the research. This, coupled with the FASTR legislation now before our dysfunctional congress, mark a solid step forward, not just in making the results of federally-funded research available, but in helping us get closer to seeing open as the sensible default setting for scholarship and scientific research.
Just a couple of years ago, open access to scholarly research seemed a cause that, like universal access to health care, was both sensible and doomed to fail. Too few of the powerful cared because they had the access they needed and didn't give much thought to those who didn't. The system seemed entrenched and too complex to overhaul. The small steps being taken toward open access seemed just that - small.
But in recent months we’ve seen a lot of progress. The Research Works Act, a publisher-led attempt to outlaw what the Whitehouse has just directed, was a miserable failure in Congress. A well-respected mathematician suggested we stop publishing and reviewing for journals published by Elsevier, and within a short period of time thousands of academics publicly agreed not to. Harvard announced they could no longer afford to subscribe to every journal their faculty needed (gasp!) and a librarian at SUNY Potsdam had the temerity to tell the world why her library and chemistry department felt forced to cancel subscriptions to American Chemical Society publications. More open access journals were founded (as many as three per day), a directory of open access books was launched, and Amherst College founded an open access press, planning to bring open access solutions to the shrinking readership of high-quality academic books. In the UK, the government moved aggressively to ensure its publicly-funded research would be available to all (though there is some disagreement about exactly how that should be accomplished).
And now here we are.Another giant step forward.
Pushing that boulder up the hill seems at last to be a little easier, the hill less steep, and we can begin to imagine a point when the boulder will begin to roll on its own, gaining momentum once we’re over the hump. We librarians need to seriously consider how we can retool our systems and resources to support this transition to openness. Neglect and business-as-usual won't cut it anymore. But that's okay, because we have the skills and the resources to make this work, and it will be so much more in alignment with our values than our current walled-garden members-only libraries are.
I wouldn't have been able to imagine this much progress so quickly. Now I am beginning to think we'll soon look back and wonder why it took us so long.
photo courtesy of joybot