Responding to calls for more open access to publicly supported research, the White House has directed a wide range of federal agencies to come up with plans to make the studies they fund freely available within 12 months of publication.
In a memo issued Friday, White House science adviser John Holdren also called on agencies to develop better digital systems for managing research data. The memo comes in response to a "We the People" online petition that was created last May and has since garnered more than 65,000 signatures.
The debate over access to federally funded studies has been simmering for years. Some in the scientific community have argued that such studies should be made freely and publicly available immediately because taxpayers have footed the bill for the research. Others have voiced concern that a government requirement to distribute the studies at no cost would deal a blow to the scientific publishing industry.
"We wanted to strike the balance between the extraordinary public benefit of increasing public access to the results of federally-funded scientific research and the need to ensure that the valuable contributions that the scientific publishing industry provides are not lost," Holdren wrote in his response to the online petition. "This policy reflects that balance, and it also provides the flexibility to make changes in the future based on experience and evidence."
Policy changes required
The 12-month deadline for open access applies only to agencies that spend more than $100 million a year on research and development. The National Institutes of Health have already been following that policy, but now other agencies such as the Defense Department, the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Science Foundation will as well. Exemptions to the policy may be made for national security or legal reasons.
"Full public access will require changes in policies, procedures and practices from the many stakeholders who participate in NSF's broad research portfolio spanning all scientific and engineering disciplines," NSF Director Subra Suresh said in a statement. "We stand with our federal science colleagues, as well as our non-governmental partners, to collaborate in accomplishing this transition on behalf of science and our nation's future."
A bill currently under consideration in Congress — known as the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, or FASTR — would set a six-month time limit for providing free online public access to published research. However, the prospects for passage of that bill are uncertain. The Public Library of Science, a non-profit organization that has pioneered the open-access concept with such journals as PLOS ONE, hailed Friday's White House directive but said "we now need to take the next step and make open access the law of the land, not just the preference of the president."
One of PLOS' founders, biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California at Berkeley, delivered a sharper response in a Twitter comment: "That anyone is celebrating 12-month embargoes with no reuse rights to publicly funded research just shows how much further there is to go." He called the White House directive a "massive sellout of public interest to publishers."
The publishers of some of the best-known scientific publications, such as Science and Nature, make most of their money from institutions and individuals who purchase access to the published articles, one way or another. Open-access journals, in contrast, may charge researchers a fee to publish their studies, and then make the studies freely available online. Alternatively, they may receive subsidies from institutions, or take contributions, or earn revenue from advertising and premium products.
The case of Aaron Swartz
The open-access debate figured in the controversial case of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who faced federal felony charges for surreptitiously downloading more than 4 million academic papers from a controlled-access database at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011 with the intent of making them freely available. If Swartz went to trial and was convicted, he could have been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison and fined as much as $1 million. But Swartz never went to trial. He committed suicide last month at the age of 26.
Swartz's death touched off a series of protests, as well as calls to reform the law under which Swartz was prosecuted. A piece of proposed legislation known as "Aaron's Law" seeks to decriminalize the kinds of terms-of-service violations that Swartz was alleged to have committed. At a memorial for Swartz held this month in Washington, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he backed legislative reforms and declared that access to information is a "human right."
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.