November 18, 2013

Open Access advocates protest the FIRST Act


When, in February 2013, the White House issued a directive stating that all larger federal agencies (agencies that spent over $100 million R&D annually) should make the results of any federally funded research available to the public within a year of publication, Open Access advocates cheered. This was the first commitment to an across-the-board OA policy at the federal level in the US, though the UK and the European Commission had already advanced OA policies for the results of taxpayer-funded scientific research.

However, a new bill, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology (or FIRST) Act of 2013 now threatens to reverse the progress made earlier in the year. The FIRST Act is a broad bill meant to re-establish the priorities for the National Science Foundation, since its precursor, the America COMPETES bill of 2010, is due to expire this year. It addresses many functions of the NSF, including merit review and grant distribution.

But it’s Title III, Section 302 of the bill that Open Access advocates are concerned about. This section has a number of provisions that contradict, in name or in spirit, the earlier White House directive. For instance, the FIRST act requires that all agencies create policies so that federally funded articles or data are released to the public… but first they can be kept behind a paywall for 24 months, a period which can also be extended by another year if stakeholders agree.

Furthermore, agencies are only required to provide links to the research, which means that publishers could retain control over content, while agencies would still be in compliance as long as their bibliographies contain a link to the material.

In response, eleven organizations — among them the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) — have written a joint letter to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, objecting to the terms of the FIRST act. Initially, they lay out their case in terms of long-range goals and the international consensus on OA for publicly funded research to date.

Our government funds research with the expectation that new ideas and discoveries from this research will accelerate scientific discovery and innovation, promote entrepreneurship, stimulate the economy, and improve the lives and welfare of all Americans. Around the world, there is widespread agreement that policies ensuring fast public access to, and full use of, articles reporting on the results of this research are critical to optimizing these outcomes.

But the argument quickly, and correctly, turns not only to how FIRST contradicts the White House directive, which received substantial public support — over 65,000 people signed a petition in favor of it — but also to the National Institutes of Health’s experience with their publicly accessible archive, PubMed Central. PubMed Central is, as their website states, a “free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature” and it has been the repository for all research funded by the National Institutes of Health since the passage of the NIH Public Access Policy in 2008, which mandated that NIH research be made available to the public for free within 12 months of publication.

And guess what? PubMed Central’s been a runaway success: it holds more than 2.8 million full text articles and receives over a million visitors daily. It has even spawned UK and Canada versions. It is proof in action that there’s a demand for this material and an advantage to making it accessible on or close to publication.

The FIRST Act is one of multiple recent attempts to revert the NIH Public Access Policy and restrict open access, chief among them the Research Works Act, which nosedived spectacularly in February 2012 when the original sponsors of the bill, Representatives Darrell Issa and  Carolyn Maloney, pulled their suppor from it, after an international outcry.

But while it may be less high-profile than the RWA, it’s no less wrong-headed, or dangerous, if only because it extends, muddles, and complicates the process of making this research available. And benefits one party only: publishers who charge for access to the results of research taxpayers have made possible. It’s hard to see how there’s any way this could be defensible.

Instead, SPARC and the other signees of the joint letter have rallied behind the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act), which is the polar opposite of FIRST. It stipulates:

-Immediate deposit of articles to federally owned or approved repositories in formats and under terms that enable their productive reuse, including computational analysis by state-of-the-art technologies;

-A maximum embargo period of six months; or a 12 month maximum embargo period with explicit provision that the embargo can be reduced if stakeholders provided credible data showing that the delay causes harm or reduces benefits to the public;

-An explicit statement of the terms of use applicable to articles to ensure that their full productive reuse is enabled – including text mining, data mining, and full computational analysis by state-of-the-art technologies.

In its clarity and its emphasis on speedy release of research, which has proven especially important with medical articles — including a few incredible success stories like the 16-year-old who used PubMed Central to come up with a diagnosis for pancreatic cancer that’s “667 times cheaper, 168 times faster, and 400 times more sensitive than the current test” — FASTR’s better than FIRST.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.