Taxpayer access to US federally funded research results need not involve publishers giving away their product. An alternative mechanism is available, one that is already partially implemented. It is called the research report.
Demands for free access to taxpayer funded research results are in full cry. The focus is on journal publishers and their product. What is puzzling is that this access already exists in the US, in principle if not always in practice, and it does not involve the publishers. By law every federally funded research project is required to provide a detailed final report. Some science funding agencies make these reports freely available via the Web, but others do not. Making them all available would solve the access problem, without involving journal publishers.
It seems that nobody knows about these final reports. I do only because I found myself working with a leading publisher of them, the Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI). DOE does about $5 billion a year in basic research, over 10% of the US federal basic research budget, and more physical science and computer science research than any other federal agency. Energy per se is not the topic; these are the descendents of the Manhattan project. Two things happened after the big war ended. First, the scientists who stayed became the DOE national labs –Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, etc. Second, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was created to fund those scientists who went back into the university system.
OSTI gets a copy of every DOE final report and publishes them online in a portal with the obscure name of Information Bridge. I think they publish about 10,000 reports a year, which makes them a major scientific publisher. Of course these reports are not journal articles, but in some ways they are actually superior. They are often much longer than the resulting journal article, if there even is one, with that much more information. They also often lead the resulting journal article by many months.
For example (and to toot my own horn), I have a research report in Information Bridge: “Report for the Office of Scientific and Technical Information: Population Modeling of the Emergence and Development of Scientific Fields.” It is dated October 2006. The resulting journal article: “Population modeling of the emergence and development of scientific fields” was published in Scientometrics in late 2008, or two years later. The research report contains what are to my mind the most interesting findings, which are not included in the journal article, as they are too speculative (but that is another story).
The point is that these research reports should satisfy the demand for public access to taxpayer funded research results, without messing with the journal publishers, or their business model. Unfortunately, some federal research agencies do not make their reports publicly available, the way OSTI does. The National Institutes of Health, which accounts for one half of the federal basic research budget, only makes journal abstracts and old journal articles available. NSF publishes nothing.
Given that there is only one federal government this agency to agency disparity is absurd. There is simply no federal policy on public access to research results, but there should be. Every agency should make its research reports publicly available.
In short, the issue of taxpayer access to research results is very different from the issue of open access to journal articles. The funding agencies can easily provide public access to their research reports, which they all receive, without bothering the researchers or the publishers.