Putting science back in its proper place, Congress has taken up a bill to eliminate the requirement that publicly-funded research be freely accessible by the public. Open access watchdog Peter Suber writes:
The Fair Copyright Act ... would repeal the OA policy at the NIH and prevent similar OA policies at any federal agency. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where Conyers is Chairman, and where he has consolidated his power since last year by abolishing the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property. The Judiciary Committee does not specialize in science, science policy, or science funding, but copyright.
The premise of the bill, urged by the publishing lobby, is that the NIH policy somehow violates copyright law. The premise is false and cynical. If the NIH policy violated copyrights, or permitted the violation of copyrights, publishers wouldn't have to back this bill to amend US copyright law. Instead, they'd be in court where they'd already have a remedy.
I think the existing policy is not nearly as open as it should be. The free availability of most NIH-funded research after a year is very important; even scientists at most institutions may not have immediate access to research findings, since journal subscriptions have become so high. But even aside from the way that open access may improve the quality of research, I think it is essential that science remain an open process, with results open to the public.
Two years ago, I wrote about the problems of open access in paleoanthropology:
Most papers about new fossils are supported by data from scanning. A small proportion of these scans have been made available to paying professionals, or soon will be. Most are locked away, with no long-term prospect of ever being distributed. Today, none are openly available. Not a single scan of a hominid fossil can be obtained in the open, free of charge.
...[T]oday paleoanthropology faces a real credibility problem. A substantial majority in most of the world's countries believes that we are lying about human evolution. In the few nations that are exceptions, a substantial minority holds the same belief: human evolution is false. The human fossil record has been fabulated.
On Thursday, I had the privilege of doing an hour-long show on Wisconsin Public Radio, broadcasted statewide, about Darwin. It was a great experience, and I appreciated the chance to talk about the record of human evolution as well as Darwin's importance today. But it should be no surprise that one caller questioned the truth of the evidence about our evolution, claiming that scientists had proven that no transitional fossils exist.
I'm very fortunate in my topic. To answer this question I can immediately draw upon the rich hominid fossil record. And on Thursday, I was able to point to the newly sequenced 3 billion base pairs of the Neandertal genome.
But there's one important difference between those two kinds of evidence. Later this year, the Neandertal genome will be entirely public, so that anyone in the world with an Internet connection can download and examine it. Not so with the hominid fossil record. I can't point the public to any comparable source of raw information. With the Neandertal genome, by next year we may see high school science fair projects on Neandertal evolution. But do you think those kids will ever have a CT scan to work with?
Even on the more limited topic of open access publishing, more progress is needed. Some of the costs of making publications open access are now covered by grants, but not enough. Ultimately, open access depends on this funding. Scientists who do not have grant support may apply to have publication fees waived, but we need to be expanding public funding and requirements for open access publication, not contracting them.
A lot of scientists out there don't like the existing policy and want to roll it back. They would rather not have to make their data public. They have worked through conferences and meetings in the funding agencies to limit the impact of the current open access requirement.
Now, it looks possible that Congress will do the rolling back for them. That's at the behest of scientific publishers' interests, naturally. Public open access to the products of the public's money is nowhere near as important as Congress' open access to lobbyists' money.