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Federal Panel Takes a Step Backward on 'Open Access'

It's no secret that the wait between the time a study is completed and the time it is actually published in a peer-reviewed journal can take months—even years. Making matters worse, a subscription to the journals in which the research reports eventually appear can cost hundreds of dollars a year, rendering them practically inaccessible to independent researchers and members of the public. And all of this can be especially galling when the research was paid for with public dollars.

Such concerns are what gave rise to the "open access" movement sweeping the academic world. Its aim is simply to make scientific knowledge more freely accessible to the public.

But, as many scholars and academic publishers have pointed out, there are also good reasons for the long, slow scholarly publication process. It helps screen out junk science, preserving only those studies sound enough to pass the journals' critical review procedures.

To address these kinds of dilemmas, the U.S. House of Representatives and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy convened a Scholarly Publishing Roundtable last June. Its task was to ponder ways to expand access to the journal articles arising out of research funded by federal agencies.

The group's report came out earlier this week and here is its core recommendation:

"Each federal agency should expeditiously but carefully develop and implement an explicit public access policy that brings about free public access to the results of the research that it funds as soon as possible after those results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal."

Am I missing something here? In my experience dealing with the U.S. Department of Education, at least, federal agencies release many research findings long before they are published in academic journals. Plus, the public release comes only after peer review panels set up by the department have vetted the study. Do we really need to extend the time it takes for government-funded research to see the light of day?

A look at the make-up of the panel sheds some light on possible reasons for this curious recommendation. Members included three publishers of scientific journals; three provosts from universities, which often publish such journals; an association executive; three academic librarians; and three researchers in library and information science. Did anyone not have a dog in this fight? The report also points out, by the way, that scholarly publishing is a $3 billion-a-year market in the United States.

There is, of course, another way to look at this recommendation. It could be aimed at all the spin-off studies from analyses of federal data, rather than the studies that the government itself undertakes or contracts. It's not the government's job to release these studies and many of them do appear first in expensive scholarly journals. Let's hope that was the panel's intent.


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