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Academic Papers to Be Published Under Open Access Guidelines?

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A new bit of proposed legislation — the Federal Research Public Access Act — may grant all citizens the right to access government-funded research papers. As of now, most academic journal articles are available through individual subscriptions or subscribing institutions, thus leaving most scholarly output accessible only within the dark walls of academia.

Many organizations whose income is derived from academic publishing have begun protesting this legislation (.doc). The 66 dissenters include major scholarly publishers (Blackwell, SAGE), university presses (Columbia, Oxford), and organizations that publish regular journals (American Psychological Association, the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine). The case against the Act rests mainly on financial terms; running an academic publication is often a losing venture and offering open access will diminish the already minuscule returns on the investment of publishing.

As far as I'm concerned, there is little reason for the publishers to be so up in arms. They still retain first publication rights and the articles won't be available in the public database until six months after the initial publication. Even more important, this research should be available to the public. It is funded through our tax dollars and often contains important and relevant findings. While most of this research is often summarized and reported in mainstream publications, it is important that inquiring minds have a place to go to see the original data and find out for themselves just what their tax dollars are paying for.

On the side of academia, I don't understand just what these people are fighting so hard against the plan. Academics have a hard enough time being taken seriously by the general public and this would present a welcome opportunity to engage with the populace. There is no reason that scholarly articles, specifically those of relevance to the citizenry-at-large, should be so unattainable. This is a vital opportunity for scientists and scholars to communicate with an audience outside the academic sphere and this sort of accessibility should be a goal for all fields. In a field such as anthropology, where the goal is to communicate about culture, it seems almost absurd to close off channels of communication with the cultures you are trying to study. As for scientific articles, this may open up all sorts of new channels for peer review that were otherwise unavailable and may lead to more accurate and informative scientific research and data.

While the majority of American citizens probably would never take advantage of such an open access database, it is important for us to see where our tax dollars are going. Furthermore, as with the Freedom of Information Act, it is important for information to be easily accessible. We shouldn't have to jump through hoops to do something as basic as learn. This legislation would help bridge the gap between academia and the public — theory and praxis — and would open up new and bold opportunities for research applications.

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About Warren Patrick

  • Brian: You’re right that academic *publishers* generally oppose this bill, but wrong that *academics* (researchers) oppose it. Researchers are very much in favor of it and see that it would help them both as authors and as readers. The scientific societies are doing harm, not only by opposing a good bill but also by pretending to speak for the interests of science when in fact they’re only speaking for the interests of their publishing divisions.

    BTW, I track new developments on this bill in my blog,
    Open Access News

  • Peter, you’re right, of course. While I was aware of the distinction you point out, I can fully understand why my article may have led to you believe otherwise! The first few sentences in the fourth paragraph could have been worded a bit more carefully. It’s important to note, however, that these organizations are still composed largely of academics who are selling themselves out and doing a massive disservice to the rest of their community.

    I’ll be sure to check out your blog. If you’re interested in my slightly more nuanced stance on the issue, please feel free to check out my post on the subject on my home site.

  • Thanks, Brian. It’s true that these societies are composed of academics. But instead of saying that the members are selling themselves out, it’s more accurate to say that the leaders are failing to consult the members. For example, of the several dozen scholarly societies that have signed public letters opposing FRPAA, I don’t know a single one that asked its members to vote on the issue. As members start to understand what’s happening (which may be slow and uneven), I expect to see leadership changes at many of these societies and increasing protests on blogs and listservs that current society leaders are not representing their members.

  • Yes, the above comment should have read that the leaders of the organizations were selling themselves out, and, more importantly, selling out their members. It certainly makes one wary of paying membership dues to any of these groups.