Scholarly publishers are already working to make federally funded research as free as possible as soon as it is published. Why do we need a law to enact what is already taking shape?
It comes down to politics.
Amid stormy political times in the USA, academic interests are registering as a point of confrontation between Congress and Trump. Taking a charitable view, academia is just not at the top of the Trump agenda, and this includes scientific research. A darker view can be gleaned from some of Trump’s words and actions. Trump in a four page White House memo on August 17th, 2017, had proposed federal budget priorities for 2019 that translate to cutting back on research, unless there are powerful economic, or military considerations in play. Earlier in the year, Trump suggested a cut of $6 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As I write though, the House and Senate have thumbed their noses at the President, and rejected some of the cuts, most dramatically the NIH cuts, instead approving a $1.1 billion increase. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved an even more favorable bill that sees an increase in $2 billion to the NIH.
It is not all roses and chocolates though. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was originally facing reductions of 11%, but now the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have completed work on the fiscal year 2018 appropriations bills that fund the NSF, rejecting the Administration’s proposed 11% reduction to the research agency. Both bills would provide approximately $7.3 billion, a 2% decrease from the fiscal year 2017 level. Even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is being heavily cut, and yet, as we have just seen in Texas and Florida, we are in an era of worsening storms — research in this area is vital. Take a look at recent Trump nominees to top science administration posts. Sam Clovis is the nominee for the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Clovis not a scientist, and indeed is a climate change skeptic. There is also concern that even at this stage in the year, there is no Science Advisor to the President, a position that is often played by the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) – not yet filled.
And yet there is a bill that was just reintroduced into both the House and the Senate that is called the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2017 (FASTR). This is a bill that arguably does not serve the scientific community well. In a sense it is redundant in that the OSTP has already produced a mandate to US funding agencies to design mechanisms for allowing public access to such research. In fact, agencies have all produced pretty much the same solution to achieving this goal. There are a few competing options for funders, including a mechanism for allowing public access to funded articles at the publisher site – CHORUS. Full disclosure here, in that as an officer of the non-profit organization, CHORUS, I may be a little biased. CHORUS has blossomed as funding agencies investigate how to fulfill their goal of making funded research openly available to access. CHORUS essentially provides public access to published articles reporting on funded research. Why then does FASTR exist, if funding agencies are already fulfilling its goal of providing public access to articles reporting on federally funded research, working with publishers and other stakeholders to fulfill the OSTP mandate?
Part of the answer lies in history. FASTR in some form, or other, has been around a long time, and legislators want to keep legislating. Such is the glacial nature of movement through House and Senate for bills that don’t quite cut it. Back in 2006 two senators, John Cornyn (Republican-Texas), and Joe Lieberman (former Senator (now an Independent) – Connecticut) introduced the precursor to FASTR, The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 (FRPAA).
Cornyn said when introducing the bill to the senate:
Each year, our federal government invests more than $55 billion on basic and applied research. That’s roughly 40 percent of the current 2-year budget for my home state of Texas”. “Making this information available to the public will lead to faster discoveries, innovations, and cures”. “This bill will give the American taxpayer a greater return on its research investment.
According to Lieberman, “Taxpayer-funded research should be accessible to taxpayers. Our bill will give researchers, medical professionals and patients in Connecticut and throughout the nation access to scientific discoveries and advancements that can help bring new treatments and cures to the public.”
So, you can see where they were coming from, and yet this ignores, in part, the vibrant ecosystem of academic societies, publishers, libraries and academics as research is done and published. There appears to be little understanding among policy makers of how scientific societies serve their memberships and support academic life. In fact, FRPAA envisaged a government entity like PubMed Central (PMC) as supporting this research. In the end, The OSTP mandate to funders has produced a more nuanced approach to achieving access to Government funded articles. There was also an attempt to try and make publishers of all stripes make these articles in some semblance of final form, openly available in 6 months. There has been quite a lot of disagreement on this point with open access (OA) advocates pushing hard for mandating this notion, and publishers saying that it just does not make sense, given the range of fields, with differing half-lives seen in the impact of research articles in different fields. Math articles are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.
Well, the bill died. Cornyn and Lieberman had another go in 2009, but it died again. In 2010, while another attempt was ongoing with FRPAA, President Obama signed into law the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. This included language that required to OSTP to direct funding agencies to develop public access policies.
Confusingly, despite the work initiated through OSTP, the FRPAA kept coming back, being reintroduced in 2012, co-sponsored by 31 House members in Congress, and in the Senate by Sen. Patty Murray (Democrat-Washington), John Cornyn (Republican-Texas), Ron Wyden (Democrat-Oregon), and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Republican-Texas). FRPAA in 2012 did not go anywhere either.
One would have thought that would be it. Instead, FRPAA evolved into FASTR with this latest bill being introduced in 2015 in House and Senate (Cornyn still active as a co-sponsor in the Senate). The bill in its new form withered on the vine, but now again in 2017 has shown signs of life in its reintroduction in August and can be seen here in House and Senate editions – essentially identical to each other (other than the House bill still calling for a 6-month embargo and the Senate 12 months) and to what was produced in 2015. Notably, the press releases for introduction this year fail to mention that the OSTP has already required public access and that all of the agencies covered by the bill already have public access policies in place. In fact, SPARC’s advocacy document falsely claims that only NIH has a public access policy. Perhaps they know that the truth undermines the purpose of the bill?
What would the bill, require, in the unlikely event it were signed into law?
- Federal departments and agencies with an annual extramural research budget of $100 million would be required to develop a policy to ensure researchers submit an electronic copy of the final manuscript accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. However, all such agencies already have policies that require public access (although not all require “submission” to the agency).
- Manuscripts would need to be preserved in a stable digital repository maintained by that agency or in another suitable repository that permits free public access, interoperability, and long-term preservation.
- Taxpayer funded manuscripts should be made available to the public online and without cost, no later than six months (12 months in the Senate bill) after the article has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
- Agencies would investigate the feasibility of open licensing options for research papers they make publicly available as a result of the public access policy, the notion being enhanced promotion, and productive reuse and computational analysis of those research papers, and they would be encouraged to make broad use of regulations that reserve government licenses.
After all this work, over many years, FASTR really only achieves what to the most part already exists. An interesting new study entitled “The State of OA: A large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles”, from Heather Piwowar and Jason Priem of Unpaywall, backs up this assertion. The authors were surprised by the high number of articles freely available on publisher web sites without an explicit open license. The authors dub this “Bronze Open Access”, though really this probably should be seen as articles that are publicly accessible. The study is a fascinating, data-rich read, and well worth spending some time with. The study indicates that 28% of all journal articles are openly available, and that the largest proportion of these are publicly available on a publisher’s web site — Bronze OA — as they term it. Only 7% of the literature overall is Green. In amongst all this, there is the old thorn in the side for societies and publishers of requiring shorter and shorter periods of exclusivity to support ongoing investments in publishing. To my rather politically insensitive eye, this all seems like quite the waste of time and energy. The community has listened to the needs of funding agencies, and is actively engaged with the scientific community to design an appropriate publishing future. Few at this point have objections to the goals of FASTR – after all we have moved beyond objections to an open access business model altogether in 2017. The devil, as always, is in the details. Mind you this is with much discussion about the relative merits of Gold, Green and Platinum/Diamond, and the hope that new models will emerge.
The mud is truly sticky for FASTR, and with no serious leadership of science in the current political administration, it is hard to see what, if anything, will happen next. One thing I know for sure is that at the American Mathematical Society (AMS) we will keep a close eye on progress. The AMS Director of the Washington Office, Karen Saxe, is our person on the ground – a math professor who worked for Senator Al Franken as an AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow. We will continue developing our science publishing ecosystem regardless of FASTR, which no doubt will be in limbo for another decade.