Public Funding, Public Research

If you don’t have time to read this entire blog post, here’s the tl;dr version: if you think, as I do, that the investment we make in basic research should be maximized through making that research accessible to all, sign the petition.

May 22, 2012

If you don’t have time to read this entire blog post, here’s the tl;dr version: if you think, as I do, that the investment we make in basic research should be maximized through making that research accessible to all, sign the petition.

If you’d like to know more, here’s why I think this petition is worth signing.

I’m a huge fan of PubMed Central. Just the other day, a student was desperate to find an article quickly – any article, so long as it presented original scientific research on a particular species of tree. Normally, I would have pointed her to a biology database, but our library is small and that database’s coverage is deep, so she would have had to click through lots and lots of articles before finding any in full text or print in our library. I showed her PubMed Central and she had several articles to choose from, all full text, within seconds.

Even better, when she graduates, she can still search PubMed Central and read those articles. We are required by almost all of our licenses to cut students off the minute they graduate. What a great way to prepare students for lifelong learning: get them hooked on scholarly research, then show them the door.

But there are these wonderful exceptions. We need more of them.

The National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health is run by people with vision. When I first worked in an academic library, I was grateful to them for compiling and sending out Medline volumes indexing the latest medical research, available to any library that was part of the Federal Depository System at no cost to the library. When it went online as PubMed, it became free to anyone in the world with an internet connection. For many researchers in the biomedical sciences, this is the database they use most often. It’s a lifeline to researchers everywhere.

In 2000, the NLM decided providing over 20 million abstracts of research wasn’t enough. They thought it was too bad that the journals they subscribed to were only available to those who visited their library or were in some way affiliated with a research institution, so they started a permanent archive of biomedical and life science journals in cooperation with international partners. Many of the journals are deposited by publishers who take seriously their role in making research public. In addition to these backfiles of entire journals, articles that are the result of research publicly funded through an NIH grant must be deposited with PubMed Central as a condition of the grant. That requirement took a bit of finesse as it was unpopular with many biomedical publishers. They argue that the government doesn’t pay for the value publishers add to those articles. But then, the research wouldn’t exist without that funding, and these grant conditions are not forced on publishers; it’s authors that have to comply with the grant requirements. If a publisher isn’t comfortable letting research results be publicly accessible, they don’t have to publish those articles.

Several times an act to extend this kind of grant requirement to other government agencies that distribute a significant amount of funding for basic research has been introduced in congress, but it has been opposed by publishers, including scholarly societies such as the American Chemical Association and the American Psychological Association which make millions on subscriptions and prefer to keep the articles they publish behind a paywall. Publishers struck back by lobbying for an act to prohibit the NIH and other government agencies from making such grant requirements. This bill, the Research Works Act, generated so much anger among authors and citizens it ended up not just failing, but inspiring a boycott against Elsevier, a giant for-profit publisher that supported the bill.

I would like to see us come up with new funding models that will enable libraries to pool their resources and carry out their missions without thinking as parochially as we do now, providing temporary access just for those who are currently affiliated with our institutions. If we repurposed the money each of us invests, we could afford to make much of the research scholars create to extend our knowledge about the world to be available to the world. Meanwhile, as we figure that out, this effort to make the research we underwrite truly public knowledge is worth supporting.

If this makes sense to you, take a minute and join the thousands who have already signed the petition.

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