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?"

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!