My Thoughts about the FIRST Act: Public Access is Not Enough

Many scholars and librarians support public access to research publications funded by U.S. taxpayers. It's hard to argue with the idea that the people who paid for this research have a right to read the results without having to pay a third party (often a commercial publisher) for access. But, in making the case for open access to research published by faculty working at a public university, I sometimes meet supporters of public access that assume the access problem has been solved by federal policy. Reader, we have a problem.

Public access to federally funded research publications is a great policy. For example, with the NIH Public Access policy enforced, readers from around the world can now access over 3 million articles in PubMed Central (PMC). Access to the best evidence in health research will improve global health, your neighbor's health and, ultimately, your own. But, public access is not enough. Federal funding supports only a fraction of the academic research published each year. And PubMed MEDLINE includes another 20 million articles that are not available to readers without a subscription. Imagine what you'd miss each year if you were a health science professional that had to rely only on public access to scholarship.

To make matters worse, federal policy is always under review. We can't just sit back and call it a done deal. See, for example, H.R. 4186, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act. Heather Joseph, from SPARC, makes a strong case for why the Act is bad for those of us that care about the exchange of research, knowledge and discovery. Section 303 would increase embargoes on access to funded scholarship to up to three years! A lot can happen in three years. What would you miss if you had to ignore the last three years of research in your field you study?

Yesterday, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced an amendment to strike Section 303 from the Act. Sadly, it was narrowly defeated: 9 to 8 with one abstaining. One of the "no" votes included a heart surgeon--Congressman Larry Bucshon (R-IN). Presumably, Bucshon thinks that Public Access is one of the "unnecessary, and expensive regulatory and compliance burdens that federal agencies put on our research community." Perhaps Bucshon has forgotten the inefficiency introduced by paywalls and inflated subscription costs.

FIRST is a terrible Act. It's bad for access and it's bad for science. Frankly, as Lamar Smith's comments about the NSF make clear, FIRST is, at it's heart, anti-intellectual. Let's hope our government is smart enough to fix it. In the mean time, FIRST should remind us that Public Access is not enough. As scholars, we do not need to wait for the government to mandate access to a fraction of the literature that we produce. Rather, we can ensure that our work is available for the readers that need it by adopting open access practices at home--at the university, school, department and individual level. Oppose Section 303, but also assert your rights as an author at home. Start by learning more about open access at IUPUI.

-- Jere Odell

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Updated Mar 27, 2016 by Scholarly Communication Librarian