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By Emily Conover
A bill that would mandate public access to federally funded research is now one step closer to becoming law. On July 29, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs unanimously approved the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act. This bill would require that peer-reviewed scientific publications from federally funded research be made freely available to the public within a year of publication. The bill will next move to the full Senate for a vote. The bill has also been introduced in the House, but the committee responsible for the bill has yet to vote on it.
The bill is similar to a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memo from February 2013; the memo requires agencies that fund more than $100 million worth of research to fashion plans to make peer-reviewed publications available to the public. Federal agencies and some publishers have since begun arrangements to release publications in accord with the OSTP mandate. (See CHORUS Papers for a related article.) The new legislation would codify public-access policies into law, making requirements less likely to shift with each administration.
Open-access proponents have come out in support of the legislation. “The passage of the bill would be a step forward,” says Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a nonprofit open-access publisher. But, he says, “My hesitancy is that it doesn’t go far enough.” Eisen would rather see a bill requiring papers to be immediately available upon publication. The current legislation originally called for a 6-month time limit before publications must be made accessible, but this was amended to 12 months to more closely align with the OSTP policy and to respond to requests of academic publishers.
Publishers are concerned about the bill’s potential impact on science and on their business model. If articles are freely available online, university libraries would be less likely to pay for access, the main funding source for scientific publishers, says Michael Lubell, director of the APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA), especially if the time limit for open-access publication shrinks in the future. “You can see where this is heading,” Lubell says.
Journals will have to adapt in order to support their editorial operations in this new landscape.
“The question is, ‘At what point will we have to go to another kind of financial model for supporting the work that we do to maintain a high-quality peer-reviewed publication?’” says Kate Kirby, chief executive officer of APS.
The new model might be one in which the author pays, an approach that carries a price tag of a few thousand dollars per article. However, this cost, if borne by scientists’ grants, would further squeeze tight research budgets, Kirby argues. The APS OPA is currently asking some members of the House to amend their bill to require a Government Accountability Office study on the impact of an author-pays model on science budgets and on research.
Still, Eisen contends that open-access scientific publishing can work. “The future could be one in which science publishing looks very similar to the one we have today, it’s just paid for differently,” he says.
But physicist Paul Ginsparg of Cornell University, creator of the preprint server arXiv.org, takes a different view. “Until you have a good financial model for open access it doesn’t make sense to push it, burn bridges, and all the rest.” And he draws a distinction between large, commercial publishers and small nonprofits. “This isn’t the right way to address [open access], if it across-the-board impinges on the ‘good guy’ publishers.” The twelve-month time limit, Ginsparg says, is probably a “good compromise.”
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