Re: US Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 9 May 2006 16:04:52 +0100

          [Posted anonymously, with permission]

On 8-May-06, at 3:17 PM [identity deleted] wrote:

> Dear Prof. Harnad:
> Even though I respect your efforts to champion open access and I
> mostly agree with your eloquently expressed views, on this one
> point [i.e., public access vs. researcher access] I respectfully
> disagree.
> There are several examples where the American public has been
> served mightily by wise efforts on the part of the government to
> make proprietary government-collected data freely available.
> The best examples that come to mind are EDGAR, the open access
> database for corporate filings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange
> Commission, and the Open Patent Server of the U.S. PTO. Medline is
> a third example that probably fits the same pattern.
> In all instances, the government initially thought it best to
> "partner" with monied corporate interests to distribute the data.
> Generally, the cost of access was so high that only the richest
> institutions could access the data. The paternalistic view was
> presented (which is a little like the one you are proposing) that
> the public wouldn't be able to "understand" the information or
> should even be "protected" from it, fearing that they would
> misunderstand it and cause themselves harm.
> Well, in all the above cases, public pressure forced the government
> to open up the databases to the public and the positive societal
> good has been staggering. The fallacy of the paternalistic
> thinking is now obvious. Yes, there are plenty of people that can
> understand complex corporate filings, and the investment playing
> field is now more fair. Similarly, there are innumerable small-time
> inventors who are taking advantage of the open patent database --
> presumably we have more inventions. And, many, many citizens
> access Medline each day for health information. They are using the
> information mainly to guide their own healthcare and that of their
> families, but there are plenty of people at institutions that can't
> afford journal subscriptions who are doing research based upon what
> the read on free Medline.
> Yes, we need open access to the journal publications of government
> funded research so that the public can gain access to the research
> that it paid for. I would not be surprised if a citizen somewhere
> might conceive a cure based on what was read free publications.

Thanks for your comment. It is an interesting analogy you make --
between public access to research and public access to SEC filings
and patents -- but I think it underscores my point, rather than
undermining it:

There *are* many things laymen can and do do with SEC/patent data,
but (with the exception of a small clinically-relevant fragment,
which is a Trojan Horse), there is next to nothing that laymen can or
do do with the overwhelming majority of the annual 2.5 million
articles that are published in the planet's 24,000 peer-reviewed
journals, across all disciplines.

I would hate to see the case for mandated OA self-archiving -- which
can be made so unassailably on a peer-to-peer, researcher-to-
researcher basis, because so many researchers are denied access,
because their institutions can't afford it -- stand or fall on the
likelihood that "a citizen somewhere might conceive a cure based on
what was read in free publications".

For if that's the best we can do, the FRPAA will fall, under the
attack from the publisher lobby, just as all its predecessors have
fallen (except the Wellcome Trust mandate, because unlike government,
the WT, being private, is immune to the publisher lobby).

Yet my point is that we *can* do so much better (and at no loss
whatsoever, because public access -- to the layman -- still comes
with the OA territory). What the SEC/patent analogy lacks is
something corresponding to *disenfranchised specialists* -- i.e.,
those for whom the data (here, peer-reviewed research) was intended
by its producers (researchers). For unlike the SEC/patents case, it
is the *primary target population*, namely specialized researchers,
of whom a large chunk (no one knows quite how large, but it's
substantial) is currently being denied access to the research
intended for them. And that's without yet mentioning the general
public and the "citizen somewhere [who] might conceive a cure based
on what was read in free publications".

Why on earth should the FRPAA put the low-probability cart (the
citizen who conceivably might) before the high-probability horse (the
specialized researcher, who is by far the most likely to be able to
do something with the research, which was written for him and not for
the layman)?

And why this probability-reversal in the rationale for the self-
archiving mandate particularly in the face of a dead-certain assault
from the publishing lobby, along exactly these lines? An assault that
has so far always been successful.

My stress on the high-probability and unassailable rationale for
mandating self-archiving, instead of the low-probability and highly
assailable (because invalid) rationale is not out of *paternalism*
but out of a desire to get this optimal, inevitable and obvious
outcome for research, researchers, their institutions, their funders,
and their funders funders -- the ones for whom the research is being
done -- to become *actual* at long last, for it is already long, long
overdue. This specious focus on public access (a big asset with the
naive voter-public, but a far bigger liability with the sophisticated
publisher lobby) as the primary rationale for open access stands to
fail, needlessly, if it does not refocus on its target and sharpen
its focus. And the delay will just continue.

And the real head-shaker in all this is that Public Access (PA) would
come with the OA territory anyway. So insisting on making PA the be-
all-and-end-all of the case for OA itself risks simply drowning the
Solomonian baby (OA) in a bathwater of foolish and superficial
ideology (anti-"elitism").

I've been in this OA game for an awfully long time now; you'll have
to forgive my impatience with yet more years of gratuitous,
avoidable, remediable delays...

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum
Received on Tue May 09 2006 - 16:11:59 BST

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