Since the OSTP RFI on public access to the results of federally funded research has been extended until January 12, I decided to add to my first Kitchen article presenting my case for using research reports instead of journal articles to meet the mandate. I have even done some research in the interim. Plus, there has been a spirited discussion here in the Kitchen, in the comment threads of several different posts.
My basic argument is that the goal of public access to federally funded research results is best served via contract research reports, not journal articles. I first need to make clear that providing public access to research reports is not new. In fact, several science agencies have done it for a long time. DOE, DOD, EPA, NASA, and NSF all have extensive Web portals that provide searchable access to their unclassified reports.
DOE’s “Information Bridge” portal is a good example (plus, I have worked on it). It has lots of fancy features and contains about 300,000 reports. Last year, over 30 million (that’s million) were downloaded from Information Bridge alone. Thirty million downloads is a lot of public access indeed. So all I am proposing is that all the agencies do what some do already; this is not a radical change in federal practice.
Now let me make the case that the goal of public access to federally funded research results is best served via research reports, not journal articles:
- Meeting the goal of public access to federally funded research results does not require public access to journal articles. There is growing interest in providing public access to the results of federally funded research. In particular, SEC. 103 (a) of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 specifies that the federal government
. . . shall establish a working group under the National Science and Technology Council with the responsibility to coordinate Federal science agency research and policies related to the dissemination and long-term stewardship of the results of unclassified research, including digital data and peer-reviewed scholarly publications, supported wholly, or in part, by funding from the Federal science agencies. [emphasis added]
A great deal of attention has been focused on the referenced “peer-reviewed scholarly publications,” or journal articles, but in the legal language they are just an example of the results of federally funded research. The term “including” signals an example. This is a common mistake, whereby an example given in a law is taken to be the general case itself. But the COMPETES Reauthorization Act clearly refers to “the results of unclassified research” not merely to peer-reviewed scholarly publications, such as journal articles. In fact, the original COMPETES Act of 2007 contains a mandate for public access to research reports, in this case reports from the National Science Foundation. Section 7010 says the following:
The Director shall ensure that all final project reports . . . are made available to the public in a timely manner and in electronic form through the Foundation’s Web site.
- Federally funded research always produces one or more research report. These reports are central to the federal research process. These research reports are required by the Federal Acquisition Regulations, which apply to both grants and contracts. There is always a final report for every project and in many cases there are also annual interim reports. The reports summarize the research results, and they can be quite lengthy. For example, the Department of Energy estimates that its average report is around 60 pages long, far longer than the typical journal article. It is not that research reports are superior to journal articles, nor are they inferior. The two serve different purposes.
- These research reports are the natural vehicle for providing public access to federally funded research results. The reports are produced as part of each federally funded project, and they are delivered to the government as a contract deliverable. Thus, there is a report for virtually every project. The research results being reported on are solely that which the government funded. Thus if the policy is to provide public access to federally funded research results, then these reports are the natural vehicle for doing so. The government already has them, so all it has to do is make them publicly available. No new system is required.
- Presently some agencies provide public access to their research reports while others do not. There is presently no government-wide policy regarding public access to research reports. Some science agencies provide public access to all of their unclassified research reports; some provide access to a fraction of their reports; others do very little. Those agencies that provide comprehensive access include the following:
- Department of Defense
- Department of Energy
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- National Science Foundation
In addition, various science units within the other science agencies make their research reports publicly available. Examples include the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture and the Institute of Education Sciences in the Department of Education. The point is that providing public access to agency research reports is neither new nor unusual.
- Journal articles, in contrast, are not part of the federal research process. To consider journal articles as the result of federally funded research is a misleading oversimplification. To begin with, these articles are often written long after the project has ended, so they are not federally funded. Unlike research reports, the government does not own these articles.
Then too, these articles have undergone extensive pre-publication filtering and editing, including journal peer review, which is also not part of the federal process. In many cases they include additional, unfunded research, in response to peer review comments. So while these articles may be derived in part from federally funded research, they are not in fact the simple result of such funding, not as the research reports are. Journal articles are not really part of the federal research process, while research reports are.
- Moreover, applied research often does not lead to journal articles, yet it is a major component of federally funded research. A great deal of federally funded research is of an applied nature, as opposed to being basic research. For example, in the Department of Energy, applied programs account for a large fraction of the research budget. In many cases applied research results are not published as journal articles, just as project research reports. Yet this applied research is often the most suitable for technology transfer into the private sector, which is one of the major goals of public access policy. Thus a focus on journal articles misses much of the research.
- Unavailable research reports are a wasted resource. Where are the federally funded project research reports now, the ones that are not presently publicly available? Presumably they are in the files of the contract and program offices. As it is these unavailable reports are largely wasted resources. There are probably millions of pages of such reports, representing hundreds of billions of dollars in research.
- Providing public access to all unclassified federally funded research results via contract research reports should be simple to implement. As explained above, the government already receives detailed research reports for all federally funded research. A number of science agencies already make all of their reports publicly available, via Web portals. Moreover, there are already two portals available for government wide dissemination of research reports. These are the National Technical Information System and Science.gov. It should therefore be a relatively easy matter for all the science agencies to make all of their research reports publicly available. They have the reports, and they have the technology.
- Conversely, providing government implemented public access to journal articles is complex, costly, and burdensome on the research community. The US federal government is not part of the international journal publishing system so tying the two together cannot be simple. At present NIH is the only federal agency to collect journal articles, via the PubMed Central system. The system whereby journal articles are delivered to NIH is quite complex. The flavor of this complexity can be seen in the instructions to authors at http://publicaccess.nih.gov/submit_process.htm.
Summary: The goal of public access to federally funded research results is best served via agency research reports, not journal articles.