Re: US Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 8 May 2006 18:44:25 +0100

As presently drafted, the wording of the the timely and extremely welcome
US Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA)

stands to create needless problems for itself that could even make
it fail under the already-gathering opposition from the publisher lobby:

Yet the FRPAA's flaws are ever so easily correctable:

The gist of the problem is all there in this well-meaning quote by Senator
John Cornyn (R, co-sponsor of the bill (with Senator Joe Lieberman,
D: quotation is from Robin Peek's Newsbreak in Information Today):

> JC: "Making this information available to the public will lead
> to faster discoveries, innovations and cures"..."

This same logic underlies the Bill itself.

The publisher lobby will (quite rightly) jump straight onto the two
profound errors in this reasoning, and they will use it, for all its
worth, against the Bill:

    (1) For most of the research literature, the public has neither the
    expertise nor the interest to read it.

    (2) Making it accessible to the public, does not make for cures!

Yet the remedy is so absurdly simple: The pressing reason for making
research accessible to everyone is *not* because the general public has a
pressing interest in reading it, nor because the *public's* reading it will
result in cures. It is so that *researchers* -- those specialists by and for
whom it was written, the ones with the expertise to use, apply and
build upon it -- can access and apply it, to the benefit of the general public
who paid for it.

In Senator Cornyn's quote, the following sentence comes second, and too
late, already undone by the first statement (and the logic is similarly
backwards in the Bill itself):

> JC: "This bill will give the American taxpayer a greater return on
> on its research investment."

The right way to put it is:

    "Making this information available to all researchers who can use,
    apply and build upon it will lead to faster discoveries, innovations
    and cures, thereby giving American taxpayers a greater return on
    their research investment. As a side bonus, the tax-paying public
    too will have access to as much as they may feel they wish to read
    of the research they have funded."

Today, most of published research is not accessible to much of its potential
research-user population because no researcher's institution can afford
paid access to more than a fraction of it. *That's* the real public
rationale for mandating self-archiving: so that the tax-paying public
that funds the research can benefit from the "discoveries, innovations
and cures" that will arise from making research findings accessible to
all researchers who can use and apply them.

    UK: "Maximising the Return on the UK's Public Investment in Research"

    CANADA: "Making the case for web-based self-archiving"

    EUROPE: "Publish or Perish -- Self-Archive to Flourish"

    AUSTRALIA: "Australia Is Not Maximising the Return on its Research

Of course, the general public can and will be able to read whatever they
wish of research too, if it is made OA. But it is foolish in the extreme to
base the case for making research OA on the putative pressing need for
the public to read it, and the putative "discoveries, innovations and
cures" that the *reading public* will provide as a result!

Why would the FRPAA make such a silly strategic error? Because,
superficially, the right of the tax-paying public to access the research
that they have paid for looks like a spinnable "public good" issue as
well as a spinnable "public right-to-know" issue. In that (flawed) form,
it looks like viable political-campaign material.

But what makes it look like such a compelling naive-voter issue is also
its fatal weakness, once the publisher lobby -- which is not at all naive
-- attacks it: because the two points I have made above are dead-obvious,
and can stop the momentum of OA dead in its tracks *if the FRPAA has no
stronger rationale to back it up with*. Here is what I would immediately
say if I were in the publisher lobby (and believe me, the publishers are
already busy saying it):

     "The government wants to put the revenues of a viable industry
     at possible risk simply because it thinks the general public has
     a burning need to read mostly-technical texts written for a small
     population of specialists. (Here we have some public-library data on
     the infinitesimal rate at which the general public actually consults
     this kind of specialized material when it is made freely available
     to them: Is this what all the fuss is about? Because if it's
     instead just about access to the kind of clinical-health-related
     material that we *do* have evidence the public wants to consult,
     we can easily work out a side-deal instead of the FRPAA that leaves
     most of the research literature in closed access, as it is now,
     with some exceptions for articles of potential clinical relevance
     and hence public interest).

     "And why on earth does the government imagine that giving the
     general public access to the research literature gives rise to
     more or faster "discoveries, innovations and cures"? Who does the
     government imagine is providing those "discoveries, innovations and
     cures"? It is not the general public but the small population of
     specialists who already have access to the research."

The requisite stronger rationale to counter these obvious (and valid)
criticisms is precisely: *research, from researchers, to researchers, for
the sake of the research funder, the public* -- along with the empirical
evidence (from comparative usage and impact data for articles within the
same journal issues that have and have not been made OA by their authors
by self-archiving them) that the "small population of specialists who
already have access to the research" is in reality only a fraction of
its potential research usership.

But the primary, solid and unassailable rationale -- the real rationale
for OA all along: research for researchers -- needs to be put first,
up-front, rather than trying to put the self-archiving mandate across
under the banner of the weaker, defeasible rationale: "research for
public use."

[This could be supplemented by the case for the need for access to the
primary research literature for students who are learning to become
researchers (again not the general public).]

Nothing at all is lost from remedying the FRPAA wording in this way.
Public access still comes with the OA territory. But it immunizes the
Bill, pre-emptively, against these obvious (and valid) prima facie publisher
counter-arguments, whereas the current version is positively provoking

In addition to this remediable flaw in the FPRAA's fundamental rationale
for mandating self-archiving, there is also the functional flaw I mentioned
in my previous posting on this topic (that of allowing any delay at all).

This second flaw is also easily remedied (by what Peter Suber has come
to call the "dual deposit/release policy") which is simply to mandate
immediate deposit for *all* FRPAA-funded articles, and allow the 6-month
delay only for the timing of the OA access-setting (Open Access vs. Closed
Access), rather than for the timing of the deposit itself.

That way, the new "Request Email Eprint" button -- now implemented in
both the Eprints and Dspace Institutional Repositories and allowing
individual users to request an email version directly from the author,
semi-automatically -- will tide over any 6-month delay almost as
effectively as immediate OA for all those would-be users who need it.

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum
Received on Tue May 09 2006 - 15:56:28 BST

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