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Good news about sharing scientific research

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Last week, the Obama administration issued a directive declaring that scientists have to share the results of their taxpayer funded research. I was happy to hear this, as I have always been a big advocate of sharing (well, my little sister might disagree with the “always” part, but you know what i mean).

“But wait a sec,” you might say, “Were scientists keeping those results to themselves?”

I love to share T-shirt from Creative Commons

Sharing is what makes science work. CC image from Flicker user creativecommoners.

Not exactly, but the results of these scientific studies aren’t always available to just anyone. The results of scientific research are published in scholarly journals that aren’t sold in your local bookstore. While some of these journals share their content with anyone online, most of these journals aren’t available for free.

Accessing articles in these “closed access” journals can be pretty difficult for the average american taxpayer who is not affiliated with a research university. It might require a (sometimes quite costly) subscription. If you don’t have a subscription, you might be able to purchase an electronic copy of the 10-page article for $20-$40 (typically more than the cost of a hardcover book). You could also try to find a local academic institution that already has a subscription:

  1. Make a lot of phone calls and check a lot of library websites looking for one that has a subscription,
  2. Fill up your car with gas (how much is that now?),
  3. Drive to the library,
  4. Attempt to find the university’s visitor parking (why is visitor parking so far away from everything you want to visit?),
  5. Sign up for a guest borrower card (do they have those?),
  6. Hope that library staff can log you in to a computer,
  7. Hope that the license agreement between the library and the publisher allows non-affiliated users to access the content you need.

Of course, this assumes that you live within driving distance to an institution that has the journal you want.

But the new White House directive asks scientists to make sure their work is shared more broadly. Lots of other initiatives from universities and scientific societies have encouraged this as well.

The White House asked each federal agency that spends more than $100 million per year on research and development to develop a policy requiring scientists who receive federal funding to make sure that the resulting journal articles are available to the public within 12 months of their original publication. The National Institute of Health already has a policy like this, and anyone can read these articles on PubMed Central for free. This new directive will ask the National Science Foundation, The Department of Energy, and other agencies to ask the scientists they fund to do something similar.

The practice of making scholarly journal articles available at no cost to readers is called Open Access, and I believe it is the natural extension of the sense of community and advancing knowledge that drives science.

Big thanks to the Obama administration and all of the open access advocates who have worked to educate researchers and policy makers about these issues!


Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 12:30 am 03/1/2013

    This is great news, except for the 12 month delay…
    I’m still paying the taxes that fund the research that produces the articles that journals make their money from… I sure hope they get to continue protecting their revenue steams – you know, for the benefit of science!

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  2. 2. Bops 12:32 am 03/1/2013

    That’s good news. I like to read about what’s new in science, and I kept running into “Elsevier” wanting money to read old papers from 2009 on water quality and other subjects. I even emailed them with my objections and they sent my an arrogant full page letter basically telling my off because they had the “RIGHT to PROTECT” information and charge for it. I was so mad that, I faxed that letter to as many places as I could think of that could maybe influence a change.

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  3. 3. chefbob50 2:47 am 03/1/2013

    I believe this will be a good thing for everyone provided the general public can understand the material…

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  4. 4. Bee 5:04 am 03/1/2013

    I’m all in favor of open access, but let’s have a look at the bottomline. Editing and publishing adds value to scientific articles. People who add this value need to be paid. They are presently paid by journal subscriptions which are paid by libraries which are primarily tax-funded. The way the push to open access presently happens it simply amounts to reducing science by this value added that we previously had. The argument that research itself is tax-funded and tax-payers should have access to it is all good and well, but it entirely omits to mention what benefits are in journal publication. That’s besides peer review and editing also filtering and presenting the content.

    Now it is most likely true that the value that journals add is less than the money they presently make with subscription fees. But one should not forget that they do add value. Pushing for open access in this way means that scientific research loses even more financial support of the intellectual infrastructure. Just ask yourself the following: the money that previously went to libraries, where does it go now? Can scientists make use of it some other way? Which hole did it sink in?

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  5. 5. Anna G. 7:15 am 03/1/2013

    Not a word about Aaron Swartz here?

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 9:18 am 03/1/2013

    Bee, good points, but from my personal perspective those costs should be expensed to the research project, which is at least partially taxpayer funded. I think it’d be a relatively small additional cost for the research project – if the research is worthy of being publicly funded, public funding of publication costs should also be justified…

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  7. 7. Quantumburrito 9:34 am 03/1/2013

    How would these policies clash with journal policies? What’s the word from journals? Are they ok with making most of their pages freely accessible after a year?

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