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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006

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Public Science, Public Access

David Flaxbart
Viewpoints Editor

Advocates for open access to the scientific literature were heartened recently by the surprising introduction of a Senate bill that would require most recipients of federal research funds to make their findings freely available within six months of publication. The "Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006" would expand and add teeth to the watered-down NIH policy which has been ignored by the vast majority of life scientists since its introduction in 2005. FRPAA is even more remarkable given that its co-sponsor, {Sen. John Cornyn} (R-TX), is otherwise known for an aggressive pro-business stance.

Naturally, it didn't take long for the publishing industry's lobbyists, led by the eminently hissable American Association of Publishers, to shake off their cocktail-circuit stupor and begin frothing at the mouth at this dangerous exercise in socialist engineering. They immediately trotted out their tired and discredited mantras about the loss of subscription revenue, removal of investment incentives, and threats to peer review, in addition to the accusations that the government is trying to fix a system that -- for them at least -- isn't broken.

Brian Crawford, a vice president of the American Chemical Society, mouthed this ludicrous statement in an {AAP press release}: "Americans have easy access to scientific and medical literature through public libraries, state universities, existing private-sector online databases, as well as through their professional, academic, or business affiliations, [and] low-cost online individual article sales." While this absurd claim won't fool anybody with real-life experience, these and other inaccurate sound bites could be swallowed whole by politicians and policy makers inclined to oppose government intervention.

It is sad that some of the loudest anti-OA rhetoric is coming from some non-profit publishers and societies who should really know better by now, and whose pretense at protecting the integrity of science has long since been exposed as a ploy to protect their revenue streams. We all know who they are. Claims of imminent bankruptcy are disingenuous at best, especially those coming from publishers rolling in cash. Societies that depend on money from library budgets to fund most of their activities need to divert their energies to looking for new sources of revenue, because the golden goose is on life support.

The claim of threats to the system of peer review also seems particularly weak now, given the recent well-publicized hits that system has taken in the wake of high-profile scandals such as the Woo Suk Hwang case in stem cell research. Editors have scrambled to explain that peer review isn't really intended to catch fraud after all. Knowledgeable observers can understand the finer points of their arguments, but these are lost on an increasingly skeptical public. Journals are actively abdicating any responsibility for investigating fraud, which further erodes their credibility (Altman 2006). Publishers' persistent defense of this tattered fig leaf of "added value" is starting to sound rather desperate.

The Cornyn-Lieberman bill has at best an uncertain future. It is a bit hard to imagine such a law passing both houses of this Congress, which has shown itself to be an eager handmaiden of well-heeled industries at the expense of almost everyone else. But the mere fact that such a broad bill has been proposed, at a time when NIH is re-examining its own failed OA policy, is a cause for celebration. Equally encouraging is the fact that the bill has received front-page attention in the news media -- it's not just a footnote in the Congressional Record. The issue of public access to publicly funded science isn't going away, despite publishers' hopes to the contrary. Open access may not be the panacea to cure all the ills of a collapsing system, but it is vital that it be allowed to demonstrate its impact, good or bad, in a fair and objective arena. To that end, all stakeholders in the scholarly communication community should unite to support this bill and refute its knee-jerk detractors.

Altman, Lawrence K. 2006. "For Science's Gatekeepers, a Credibility Gap." New York Times, May 2, 2006.

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