Public research should be public?

As of the writing of this blog, nearly 20,000 people have signed a petition for the government to require papers derivative from publicly-funded research be provided openly and free of charge (the White House will be legally obligated to respond if the number hits 25,000).  I fully support this, but I feel that I need to point out at least one issue that needs to be overcome.

The biggest hurtle here is from the journals themselves.  There is a wide spectrum of journal policies on providing free access to articles the author has submitted to that journal.  Many journals let the author retain the copyrights and have no problem with the author providing access to the text free of charge online.  I’m not sure what their current policies are, but historically Exploration Geophysics out of Australia has had a very reasonable stance.  Some journals simply require that you do not provide their typeset document.  Others force you to give up your copyright (after being surprised with this once, I will NEVER publish in one of those journals again).  I will say that journal gives authors the opportunity to pay extra to provide free access for everyone from the website.  (Speaking of which, if I have to pay $3000 or more to get an article published, I should damn well choose who gets access.)

Now, the government requiring open-access to articles will require journals to modify their requirements.  However, this is definite interference in the business model of private industry.  That is not insurmountable, but we are attacking the very institutions that facilitate the dissemination of our research.  What do we do about foreign journals?

Time for the good news.  Many times, government-funded research requires reports to be delivered.  More often than not, these are all available online already.  Unfortunately, these are not peer-reviewed, so are of diminished value as references, but the research IS public.

More importantly, I think this is a moot point.  I would venture to say that, when possible and allowed by the journal where the paper was published, most researchers worth their salt provide free and open access to their papers, even if it’s in a non-typeset form.  It’s good for everyone.  If you write a load of papers with the intent to pad your resumé, I don’t want to read your papers anyway, because we all know they’ll be full of auto-erotic referencing and of limited value.

Anyway, if you want to get involved, more information can be found here.


About faradaysheadache

Research Geophysicist with the US Geological Survey.
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