Open Letter on Open Access

Presidents of 57 liberal arts colleges pen a public missive urging Congress to open up access to journal articles on federally funded research.
September 23, 2009

The presidents of 57 liberal arts colleges released an open letter on Tuesday endorsing the Federal Research Access Act of 2009, a bill aimed at increasing public access to academic research that is funded by the federal government.

The bill would require researchers with grants from certain federal agencies -- those that fund more than $100 million in extramural research annually -- to make their final peer-reviewed manuscripts openly available in digital repositories within six months. It would be “a major step forward in ensuring equitable online access to research literature that is paid for by taxpayers,” according to the presidents' letter. The signatories note that both faculty who wish to stay current on research and students who aspire to doctoral degrees stand to lose out as academic journals grow prohibitively expensive.

It is not a new argument, nor is it a new bill. A similar piece of legislation died in the Senate in 2006. Liberal arts presidents belonging to the same library consortium (the Oberlin Group) wrote a similar letter then, too.

But some open-access advocates see more cause for optimism this time around. Since the last bill failed, the open access movement has gained momentum. Congress passed a law in 2007 requiring articles on research funded by the National Institutes of Health -- about a third of all federally funded research -- to be made publicly available on the Internet within a year of publication. Meanwhile, many professors have opened up access to their own research, sometimes paying publishers for the rights to do so. Last week, a coalition of five elite universities took a groundbreaking step by pledging to underwrite their faculty's efforts in this regard.

The current bill might be able ride that momentum to the president's desk, said Ray English, director of libraries at Oberlin College. “There was a general feeling that the bill didn’t have a great chance at passing at when it was introduced in 2006,” said English. “This time, we anticipate that it will be introduced into the House of Representatives. We also believe that the Obama administration has a strong commitment to open access.”

As usual, some publishers are leery of the bill. Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society and coordinator of the Washington D.C. Principles for Free Access to Science, said the bill could cause some publishers to fold up shop once their subscription revenue dries up. If certain publishing societies are only allowed to own their content for six months before the government throws open the gates, Frank said, it could compromise the quality of their product, along with other activities such as student scholarships.

The argument that taxpayers deserve access to the research they pay for is not compelling, he added, since many journal subscribers are from outside the country. “The Internet does not respect national borders,” Frank said. “Right now, 50 percent of the subscribers to [journals published by] the American Physiological Society are foreign, and they currently pay for it. But [this bill] would allow them to decide whether they really wanted to pay for it.”


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