Photo by Gideon Burton via flickr

Photo by Gideon Burton via flickr

Congress is… odd. They introduce odd bills sometimes. But one bill, introduced to the house last week (February 3) by John Conyers, is especially odd… and kind of scary when it comes to open access. The bill has made angry because it removes the policy of the NIH that ensures taxpayer access to taxpayer-funded research within 12 months of the research”s publication. Why the heck would Conyers do this?

Supposedly he was just angry that the House Appropriations Committee bypassed the House Judiciary Committee when creating this policy. Conyers thought this was an issue

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of copyright. And it is… just… like the publicknowledge blog post says, it doesn”t change copyright law at all. Scientists are simply made to work within existing copyright law and put their research online, making it publicly available. I don”t know what Conyers was thinking, but scientists should be all for open access.


Well, first of all, let”s go through what open access is. Open access (and A2k, Access to Knowledge) means that certain resources, mainly journals and scholarly texts, are freely available to the public. Anybody can use the information posted (online) to learn, write a paper, or conduct further research–as long as he or she attributes the original author(s).

Open access is one of those pro-participation things that, really, would make the world better. Jack Balkin, a leader in the movement, notes how A2K is a human rights issue because

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of its ability to increase health, education, scientific progress, and more.

Today, I went to a talk by Victoria Stodden, who”s a post-doctoral fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management and a fellow with Science Commons. I semi-liveblogged it, but I”ll summarize and go through points that she mentioned.

Basically, scientific communication and publishing isn”t taking advantage of new technologies–as much as scientific research is. Stodden focused more on computational science–not experimental or deductive–based on simulations and modeling. Scientists, when they publish reports, almost never publish their codes or algorithms… which results in low reproducability, even from the scientists themselves!

Science is built on the idea of peer review. This is why open access makes so much sense. As we”ve seen with open source software, putting “code” out in the open and letting others work on it leads to such progress. Scientific works, though, fall under copyright law and are copyrighted automatically, leading to unnecessary IP issues.

Stodden mentioned the purpose of copyright–and we”ve read it many times–is to prohibit copying and provide incentive to create. This–at least the former part–seems antithetical to the fundamentals of science. She proposed that scientists should release published reports under a CC BY license

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under a type of BSD license, modified to include attribution.

This is essentially what the NIH is having scientists do. Sites like PLoS are online journals that champion open access and allow scientists to publish their works with a CC BY license.

Now why would a scientist do this? And why doesn”t the use of scientific works fall under fair use? Well, it might, but we all know how ridiculous fair use is. Also, fair use is using something and not diminishing the value it has to the original copyright holder. Well, as Stodden mentioned, the value for scientists is attribution. And really, an open access system would be awesome for attribution purposes–by publishing your work to the commons, the number of derivative articles that would cite you would increase manyfold. The problem she mentioned is that, in certain cases, tens to hundreds to thousands of scientists could have input on a single paper. But, with newer technologies, this shouldn”t be a problem–one could simply utilize attribution tags of the power of search engines, etc.

In all, this is better for scientists and better for the world in general. Congress, by introducing that

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bill, is being really silly. And backwards. And potentially harmful to our scientific progress. If anything, they should expand the policy of open access to organizations like the National Science Foundation, which currently funds a lot (if not most?) of research. Unless this has already been done as per this recommendation.

Also, here”s the site for the Alliance for Taxpayer Access and SPARC, because they”re relevant.


This is the PS section. Basically, I wanted to either blog about this, the Google Book Search project, or the recent wikileaks posting. I”ll talk a little about the wikileaks posting. Notorious recently for posting Scientology documents and hacked pictures of Sarah Palin”s Yahoo account, the website just posted a billion dollars worth of Congressional Research Service reports. These reports, generated in secrecy (kinda) for Congress, are non-partisan, full of data, and in the public domain(!). However, because they”re generated for Congress, people don”t normally have access to them. Now they do. Hooray!

5 comments to “Open: Why scientists should support open access”

  1. Aaron Swartz says:

    Perhaps you should start a petition on asking Congress not to strip this provision.

  2. David L says:


    Great post. I agree that open-access in science enhances the greater social welfare, improves research efficiency. But beyond the NIH, I’m not sure it’s a great model for all scientific fields. Similarly, I’m doubtful that scientists’ individual incentives are always neatly aligned with A2K, regardless of whether they operate under the government, academia, or private enterprise. For starters, government scientists often deal with a number of sensitive, top-secret subjects, and so governments may wish to conceal certain information as a matter of national security or strategic advantage. But even the researchers themselves are not always as forthcoming, unselfish or egalitarian as we wish them to be. Consider the fact that scientists often make very lucrative post-academic and post-government careers out of their findings in one or two papers, and open access and A2K don’t seem quite so friendly. Oftentimes, governments, universities and private corporations maintain the patents to their researchers’ discoveries if developed under their hood. Thus, a researcher might hope to keep his or her work private until striking out to cash in on his or her own.

    Similarly, there are always lots of private-academic, government-academic, and private-public partnerships between universities, NIH-like institutes, and pharmaceutical companies, chem labs, tech companies, etc. Many of these involve contracts that outright preclude disclosure, and so labs and researchers dependent on certain streams of capital might have reasons to conceal the output of their scientists.

    Finally labs, be them academic, private or government-funded, are often very clique-ish, exclusive and motivated by prestige. Often scientists, like 7th graders, like to keep secrets, name-call, and do business over 12-person (but no more) conference calls. They try to keep their work private until the final product is ready, thus preferring to confer amongst each other and circulate data, models, algorithms and formulas within a select group of well-trusted, high-pedigree colleagues.

    On the other hand, I would expect much less resistance from economists, lawyers, political scientists, sociologists and other social scientists. For instance, when emailed by researchers tracking his work from the Dominican Republic, who don’t have funding for JSTOR, a professor of mine is always more than willing to shoot over a copy of his latest paper. In these fields, there is often little immediate material gain to be had just from a single paper on business cycles or property law. In fact, the incentive there is often to accumulate academic capital and then seek tenure, public office, consultation roles or private incorporation. So the advantage of open access is to initiate a dialogue first, and achieve reputability faster. This might explain the lack of resistance to the proposal at Yale Law School and other social science programs.

    Ultimately, I do think open access provides collective advantages to science and academia. But as is so often the case, there is work to be done in aligning individual, private and government incentives. Sorry for the winded comment!

  3. David L says:

    On the other hand, the latest debate over Robert Gallo’s inclusion in the Nobel Prize might highlight a great reason for publishing work quickly on a public forum: making award-winning discoveries!

    This is probably one of the more famous cases of socially-damaging discovery and patent disputes involving personal and international confrontation.

    Professor Steven Salzberg, a Yale grad, makes the case that had a public publishing forum existed back in the ’70′s, there wouldn’t have been such a huge French-American dispute, which many believe slowed the discovery of HIV and set us back many years on fighting the current pandemic.

    However, I’m skeptical that either Gallo or Montagnier’s teams would have been so quick to publish their findings online for fear of sharing information prematurely and giving the other teams competitive advantages.

  4. Adi Kamdar says:

    I’m not sure how much the national security aspect plays into this. Because of this one thing, should we really prevent poorer nations from accessing information about new medicines? Or scientists from building off others’ works?

    As far as a scientist’s individual goals, from reading more than a couple things online, it seems as though a scientist’s goal is to get his or her name out there as much as possible. At the Stodden lecture, she was saying how the professor she worked for was one of the most cited professors of all time–because he made his works open. Really it works both ways–dissemination of knowledge and dissemination of name.

    Speaking of Steven Salzberg, check it:

    He makes a good point about how, because of the tendency towards nondisclosure, drug companies and the like funnel all their money into the most profitable drugs instead of the most important drugs–because they can.

    What I’m still trying to figure out is if anyone has written any solutions to the peer-review issue. Journals, because they have money, actively recruit scientists to peer review articles. My thinking is that, if the article is open, it is more accessible to be peer reviewed. However, are we also essentially opening it up for any scientist to post an article about anything–science or pseudoscience?

  5. Grace A says:

    In response to David’s comment, it might be useful to differentiate between mandatory open access and mandatory public disclosure. “Open Access” (in the sense supported by SPARC) has come to denote a fairly specific policy of making published journal articles available online for free. The key here is that it’s work that has already been published — in other words, OA wouldn’t require researchers to publish their research before they were ready, but it would require them to put an free version online within a reasonable time after the research is published. The point is that the researchers from, for example, the Dominican Republic would then be able to easily access scholarly papers in their fields, rather than having to email the authors of every paper they thought might be relevant to their research. (And preferably, the published articles would also be accompanied by the underlying data so that other researchers could replicate the results on their own.)

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