Petition Urges White House to Require Public Access to Federally Financed Research

Building off recent momentum behind their cause, a group of public-access advocates has started a petition asking the Obama administration to require that work supported by taxpayer money be accessible online. The petition, from Access2Research, went live on the White House’s We the People public-petition site late Sunday night. Organizers got the word out quickly and broadly via social media (see the Twitter hashtag #OAMonday) and with the help of like-minded groups.

By Wednesday afternoon, close to 13,000 people had signed, more than half the goal of 25,000. According to the site’s rules, if a petition gets 25,000 signatures within 30 days, it goes to the president’s chief of staff and will get a response from the White House.

Only two paragraphs long, the petition gets to the point quickly: “We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research, and education. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research.”

The petitioners note that the National Institutes of Health’s public-access policy “proves that this can be done without disrupting the research process,” and they urge the president “to act now to implement open access policies for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.”

John Wilbanks, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, decided to try a petition after he and other open-access proponents met recently with John Holdren, science adviser to President Obama. “It was a nice meeting, but everyone’s always very noncommittal, and it was sort of the same old same old,” Mr. Wilbanks said. “Something had to change the conversation.”

Three other champions of open access joined Mr. Wilbanks in creating the petition: Michael W. Carroll, a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law; Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or Sparc; and Mike Rossner, executive director of Rockefeller University Press. Coming out of the meeting with Mr. Holdren, they felt frustrated, Mr. Wilbanks said. “It seemed like nothing was changing,” he said, even though public access has. So Mr. Wilbanks et al. decided that “we might as well see if we can go direct to the public.”

This may be an auspicious time to get the public to weigh in. Mr. Holdren heads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which last fall put out calls for input on public access to scholarly publications and to data. No policies have been issued yet as a result.

Meanwhile, recent debates on three bills–the Stop Online Piracy Act, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, and the Research Works Act–called more attention to the issue of online access to information. Those bills failed to move forward, while one favored by open-access champions, the Federal Research Public Access Act, got a boost when the commercial scholarly publisher Elsevier became the target of a boycott by researchers angry over its journal-pricing and access policies. That boycott petition, the Cost of Knowledge, has attracted almost 12,000 signers.

There’s been a lot of action on the open-access front in Europe, too. The Wellcome Trust, one of Britain’s largest funders of biomedical research, has thrown its weight behind open access. David Willetts, Britain’s minister for universities and science, announced this month that the government wanted to make publicly financed research freely available. And the European Union reportedly plans to put its money behind open-access publishing as well.

“There’s a zeitgeist around this,” Mr. Wilbanks said. “We’ve spent a decade building a movement around open access, and we have technology systems that make it quite easy to get the word out.”

[Animation by Mike McCarthy for Access2Research.]

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