Dreaming of open knowledge, settling for access to publicly funded science

I posted this reply to Peter Suber’s post about recent U.S. Federal proposed legistation (the FASTR bill) and White House policy directive calling for Open Access to the results of most Federally-funded “scientific research”.

Today’s Open Access policy directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is great news. However, I’m struck by the pervasive conflation of “scientific research” with “all publicly funded research” or of open access generally, in almost all reporting or discussion of the OSTP memo and the related FASTR bill recently submitted by Sen. Wyden. The bill and memo explicitly refer only to scientific research, and their terms seem to leave it unclear if or how their policies would apply to key humanities funders such as NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities, $150M budget) and IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Studies, $240M budget), and perhaps to social sciences work, or to “research” outside of the obvious cases of peer-reviewed research literature and data.

Many science advocates or open access advocates may find other fields marginal to irrelevant, often basing that on funding figures — a view I’ve often heard. Of course, the NIH’s $30B dwarfs the NEH’s budget, but scientific research is also vastly more expensive than humanities work. In the big picture, most research/scholarly funding is in the form of employee compensation and facilities, an amount much larger than the sums explicitly accounted as “research” funds, and this pays for vast areas of non-STEM [Scientific, Technical, Engineering, Medical] output. Also, funds and policies from agencies like NEH, IMLS, and the Smithsonian catalyze and shape much larger funding flows at state and local level, and academic and foundation sectors.

In general I find it unfortunate that so much open access advocacy seems willing to narrow its scope to the limited and politic case of “science” and “research,” and to foreground such parochial rationales as “citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for,” in the words of today’s OSTP announcement. Such tax-protester, consumer-entitlement language of “my” tax dollars may be effective in some contexts, but it’s a rather strained expression of the more foundational, universal ideals of enlightenment and global scientific culture, Jeffersonian public knowledge, and the public sphere, which have the power to drive more global, long-term action.

After all, do we want people to have access only to science their own nation funded? Or this movement not to apply to anything funded by the Wellcome Trust, Howard Hughes [Medical Institute], or any other private foundation or company or university? Do we want to suggest that only the works of the current peer-review publishing system count as “research,” or that our world needs no cultural sustenance besides scientific research?

No, of course not, we realize there are all kinds of knowledge, and believe that making most knowledge as open as possible creates an invaluable public good — from scientific research to government data to Wikipedia to open source software to archives to classic literature to open educational resources. That’s the big picture.

While celebrating this win, let’s keep our eyes on the prize.


Update (23 Feb 7:55pm).
The New York Times did an article about the OSTP memo: “U.S. Moves to Provide Quicker Access to Publicly Financed Scientific Research,” by Kenneth Chang. Other than adding quotes from people at the NSF and Dept of Agriculture, it basically repeats the OSTP press release and everyone else’s coverage.  There was no commenting available on the article, but I wrote this email to the reporter:


To: Kenneth Chang, New York Times.

I think you miss key aspects of the story regarding the OSTP policy memo (and the closely related context of the FASTR bill introduced in Congress this week).

Your article, like the coverage I’ve seen from almost all sources, repeats a questionable framing of Open Access issues into a question of taxpayer-funded scientific research. This suggests limited  awareness of the principles and history of the movement calling for public research access, and it doesn’t show much attention to the actual legislation or policy initiatives in question, which cover much more than just “scientific research.”

The OSTP memo closely follows the language of the FASTR bill, showing likely coordination, and if you read FASTR, in the House version now public, you’ll see it actually make no reference to science at all, other than in the informal title “FASTR” — and as you probably know, those bill titles are basically branding copy, and get changed all the time. The entire bill, and the concrete terms of the OSTP memo, refer only to size of agency research grant funding, to create a criteria that covers agencies doing work in many disciplines, including social sciences, and apparently the output of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum & Library Studies, and the Smithsonian.

On the broader question of why “taxpayer access to results of scientific research” is, in my opinion, a parochial and unsatisfactory rationale for public scholarship, and afar from the original concepts of Open Access, see my reply to Peter Suber’s post here: http://bit.ly/XxGQOf.

Incidentally, I think NYT reporters usually don’t reply to, not sure if they even get these messages, and I generally don’t communicate into non-public, no-response systems like this. If you want to show engagement with readers, get commenting turned on for your stories, engage on Twitter, etc. Old-fashioned, broadcast, non-peer journalism is kind of passé for me, and  the conversation is elsewhere.
Tim McCormick

Tim McCormick
@tmccormick  /  http://tjm.org  /  Palo Alto, CA, USA