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.